Twinkle twinkle

Jake Goodman here again. I know you’re used to my usual stuff on sex, life and why I don’t have a toolshed (and if you are not, buy tickets for my shows!) but I’ve been watching the news and spending time babysitting my kids over half term.
I keep hearing that the EU stuff is all too complicated.  Really? Ok. So let’s have a sing song instead…

Twinkle, twinkle European stars,
We Brits don’t get just what you are.
We’ve been told that you’re a superstate,
Now we might make a big mistake.
Twinkle, twinkle little stars,
let’s talk about just what you are.

In the 1970s we were told,
About this project, big and bold.
Both YES and NO told us a Common Market,
Was not the end but just a start to it.
Heads of State and Prime Mini-stars
Working together as partners.

The laws that come from “Brussels” are
Made by lots of British stars.
Not laws made by “faceless bureaucrats”:
The people that say that are – not very well informed…
Council, Parliament, Commission,
The people there are from each member nation.

We elect 73 UK MEPs,
That is direct democracy.
We ask them to speak for us there.
Some will be wise and some won’t care.
They make the laws and are elected by you,
They sit with other parties of a similar view.

The Council’s filled with Ministers,
The brightest, shiniest little stars.
Ministers come from our government,
That you’ve elected so they can represent.
For each subject the expert one attends,
Debates, argues, drafts and then amends.

What about the European Commission?
Surely a democratic perversion?
It’s a civil service: makes it all work;
Collects evidence; runs programmes; gets people to talk.
Proposes drafts laws for the elected ones
To change and shape until they’re done.

If you don’t like it, you have a choice,
You’ve got a vote, you’ve got a voice.
But you should know what you have got
Before you throw away the lot.
You can live, work, set up in any Member State;
Criminals can’t hide when we cooperate.

You think there is too much “red tape”?
Health and safety, working hours? (Did we “gold-plate”?)
Foreign policy; some share a currency;
Agriculture; fair competition; fish in the sea.
Clean environment; a single market:
If you trade, holiday or buy: you’re a part of it!

We take for granted the benefit
That we get from our membership.
It’s easy to say it’d be ok,
They need us, it won’t get taken away.
But there is no guarantee
And that’s not good enough for me.

In these days of globalisation
It’s tough to be an isolated nation.
The EU exists, it won’t go away,
So it’s with these structures that you’d have to play,
To work out an alternative
Less say on rules, but more “sovereign”.

People say that what you are
Is an EU-USSR.
Or a capitalist conspiracy,
Or always voting against me.
But facts do not support that view
The question is what WILL you do?

You can’t be a superstate:
Refugees came, countries closed their gates.
The euro’s not a great success,
Southern Member States are in a mess.
But you are by far our biggest market,
We’d be mad to up and scarper.

There’s no other countries calling: “Leave them be!
We’ll offer better trade!” It’s a fantasy.
And there is no one clear view
Of what exactly we would do.
Those that promise Utopia
Seem to think its based in Westminster.

And being In matters to me.
Don’t diminish my identity.
Don’t blame problems within my nation
Just on EU immigration.
Twinkle, twinkle, little stars
Reach for them, hold on, they are ours.

Talking about the town

Today I was lucky enough to be part of a session at Ashford Borough Council on regenerating the town centre.  I’m not going to use this blog to repeat everything said there’s indeed, although it wasn’t made clear what rules applied I’m fairly confident Chatham House rules would suffice – but attending the session got me thinking again about what I should want out of my home town.

Ashford’s situation has changed a bit in the time that we lived here.  When we arrived, Ashford’s Future existed, with grandiose schemes for making Ashford truly Best Placed in Kent.  But a change of government funding policy and the overall impact of the economic downturn has put paid to that.

About 18 months ago, I was asked to speak at a Council awayday about my thoughts on Ashford 2030- the vision for the town in the next few years.  While my thoughts remain in a similar vein now, I’m aware that nothing can really happen unless funding is available, and in a recession both the public and private sectors find this hard to come by.

Now, Ashford has achieved Portas Pilot status.  This means funding is available for some things, and a snapshot of these shows that the priority areas are thought to be making the most of the market, connecting the designer outlet centre with the town so that the town can share in the estimated 5-7 million visits made there each year, and seeking arts-based development (something the neighbouring town of Folkestone seems to be doing successfully).

So I promised a few thoughts that flowed from all this…

1) Why come into town? Who is it for?
Today, rightly, the focus was on footfall. From my perspective, wrongly, it focused solely on footfall in the town centre rather than looking at the circumstances affecting that…a town centre accompanied by an outlet centre, an out of town park with restaurants and the cinema, ringed by the third biggest Sainsbury’s in the country, two Tesco extras, a Waitrose, an Asda… These things affect the High Street as much as what is actually here or not here because all of these things can be described as coming to Ashford but they are not complementary and do not feed each other.
By ignoring these factors, the towns similar to Ashford information generated felt wrong – it did not seen to bring up those with similar challenges (Swindon, Maidenhead, that sort of place) – just those with similar footfall.

More interesting is the demographics, information also potentially accessible via the 2011 census. Folkestone may well be prospering by matching its retail to its demographic- Primark, TK maxx, Peacocks. Ashford, it seems has a large, affluent, family-based group of consumers who are not being sufficiently catered for in the town. While I might feel that the fashion offering is generally either too young or too old for me, it seems the silver surfer generation feel that it is not for them either. And as the two social groups with most disposable income, this is not a healthy situation for a town.

Tenterden has many of the more upmarket retailers and those stores have indicated before that with a store there and another in Canterbury, they wouldn’t also be looking to have one in Ashford. So simply increasing market share of available consumers is not a simple matter.

Everyone always talks about pop up shops, but while they are OK if you already have regular shoppers, I can’t see how they attract new visitors or, more importantly, attract long term investment in an area. Similarly the trend for street food has not yet reached Ashford, but while street food vendors have lower overheads than hospitaIity units in permanent buildings,that lack of permanency means no long term legacy when they decide to move on.

And as for hospitality in Ashford, independents seem to keep disappearing but while there are pubs and coffee shops, I’ve found little for the mums and kids beyond fast food. I like the occasional McDonalds as much as the next woman, but what if you want to have hummus in preference to chicken nuggets?
The “nice” restaurants are outside the town centre, in Kennington, Tenterden, Mersham-le-hatch, Mersham, Bodsham… But if you’ve got to travel anyway (all of these are car journeys from Ashford) it is also in Wye, Canterbury and Folkestone’s regenerated harbour – and all of those are on the same high-speed train line as Ashford. Destination food that might lead me to spend time in the place I get it from. That’s one thing Ashford is really missing.

2) Transport: a mixed blessing
In identifying competitor towns, the tendency is always to think local. Canterbury, Folkestone, Maidstone, and slightly further afield Sevenoaks and Tonbridge Wells might seem like the natural alternatives, but for a day out shopping many Ashfordians head to Bluewater (40 minutes by car, the same by train-and-bus combo), or to London.
While there have always been commuters in Ashford, the arrival of a 38 minute high-speed link to Stratford and St Pancras International means an influx of relatively affluent families looking to spend London wages in cheaper and more rural surroundings. Season tickets at over £6000 a year are such a chunk of income that many look to get their money’s worth. So weekend trips are effectively “free” and shopping at Westfield Stratford is only half an hour away with a massive food court.
Also, without retail at the station in Ashford, I often shop on the way home from London so my wages are gained by M&S food hall at St Pancras rather than in my home town. This is daft.

The problem though is also more local. I always laugh when monorails are mentioned, remembering the conman in The Simpsons, but seriously the 50p bus ride between the outlet and the town is not doing much to encourage interchange and a fifteen minute walk under a damp railway bridge is not really going to cut it either. So feature transportation might be a worthwhile investment – something that means the kids pester to be allowed to do it (a bus ride to the hospital yesterday was described by my son as a fun day out so this is not as ridiculous as it may initially sound). And a monorail might well do just that.

3) On foot, on street parking or online?
If I need something quickly, I’ll pop into town. Particularly if I have to have something in my hand that day.
But it depends what I want. So while apparently there’s no reason why a town Ashford’s size should be sustain a music store, if there’s no hmv there anymore for that last minute birthday present, I don’t go elsewhere, I hop onto Amazon and get it delivered to the recipient’s door. Even if it does mean I won’t have it immediately.
If the small retail units in town mean that what I need (maternity clothes, big bras) are not stocked, then I’ll go online. Some retailers in town now offer to do this for me (hats off to Debenhams) which at least guarantees them the sale and I’m no worse off as delivery to home is free and only takes the same time as ordering it from their website at home would take.
Internet shopping is after all simply a glorified form of mail order, but with access to a range of products no high street could reasonably be expected to stock. But it is a threat to the high street.
I don’t think about driving into Ashford – I live within five minutes of one part of the town centre, but many people cite parking charges as prohibitively high. The lesson from Swindon seems to be to ignore the clamour to raise revenue through high parking charges and recognise that an unattractive offer becomes even less attractive if you are charged excessively to experience it.

4) Ashford is a European town
When we look for ideas we so often look to America. Some of the idea as concerning alternative rent and rate models are certainly US in origin. But the nearest non-London provisional centre to Ashford isn’t Southampton (as the Meridian TV region would have us believe). It is Lille. And getting there takes less time than you might think from Ashford, given our transport links.
No self-respecting French town would dream of talking itself down. There are syndicates d’initiative everywhere, and everywhere boosts its heritage and local produce.
Ashford is uniquely placed to take a similar approach. We should embrace the railway heritage, mediaeval buildings, 760 year market charter…
We should have an artisan farmers’ market selling local produce – the sort of thing the sadly departed Rachel’s deli sold and Evegate has a bit of. Quality is key if you want to attract regular shoppers.

Conclusion
The classic problem with Ashford is that to get it right it would be better not to be starting from here. There is a leisure park where the commercial sector should be, empty buildings and a planned commercial quarter where that leisure park should have been linking the station to the town. A new much welcome and needed John Lewis at home is going into a greenfield site outside the town rather than the vacant space between the town centre and the railway.
There’s so much space that could be used for retail but hard to know which stores are intending to fill them. And Ashford has 50% more occupation of retail by the charity sector than ought to be expected in a medium town with this population.
But we are where we are.
I think we are finally asking the right questions.
But this is a complex problem, and we need to make sure we are not reaching for simple answers just because they don’t cost as much as really investigating what can done and taking some calculated risks.
Who knows, it could make this medium sized market town really a lovely place to live.

Euro(w)s… Democracy versus Sovereignty

Croesus Pyre urn – if only his money were available to the Government in Athens right now and not burned up…

A few thoughts from watching Greece…

If one sixtieth of the population turns out on the street (e.g. marching against the Iraq war), our recent experience in the UK is that this is not sufficient for our government to change its policy.

There are riots, anti-cuts camps etc. in the streets of Athens.  The Greek Prime Minister has sacrificed his Finance Minister for someone that the Daily Mail tells me is “a populist” whose biggest achievement to date was delivery of the 2000 Olympic Games along with the crippling expense and squandered legacy that when with them.
But will the Greek government change its policy requiring more austerity measures?

I very much doubt it.
For much the same reasons.

There is understandably a lot of news coverage of the unpopular measures that the Greek government is going to need to take in order not to default and thereby avoid a financial crisis worse than 2008.

Much of the coverage has chosen to put the street protests in Athens in the context of the “Greece as cradle of democracy” story.

The question is whether the Greek government can or should decide that they don’t need to make the cuts being talked about (including 20% cuts to services and jobs in the public sector).  Given there is already 16% unemployment, this scares an enormous number of people there. According to Professor Peter Morici, writing in UPI:

Greece is slipping from a liquidity crisis into downright insolvency. Bond investors are demanding yields 20 percentage points higher on Greek debt than on comparable German debt. Rolling over existing bonds, as those come due, will be prohibitively expensive and the collapse of Athens’ finances seems inevitable.

But even if not inevitable, could Greece just be allowed to declare itself bankrupt? Could it default, if it were the will of its people?

This is where the difference between democracy and sovereignty comes into play.

Wikipedia defines democracy as:

a form of government in which all citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Ideally, this includes equal (and more or less direct) participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law. It can also encompass social, economic and cultural conditions that enable the free and equal practice of political self-determination.

There are concepts that sit alongside democracy, such as the rule of law and moral behaviour codes which require the honouring of commitments undertaken.

Wikipedia defines sovereignty as:

the quality of having supreme, independent authority over a geographic area, such as a territory. It can be found in a power to rule and make law that rests on a political fact for which no purely legal explanation can be provided. In theoretical terms, the idea of “sovereignty”, historically, from Socrates to Thomas Hobbes, has always necessitated a moral imperative on the entity exercising it.

While ancient Athenian democracy was direct democracy (open to all men who had done their military service, but not to women, slaves, freed slaves, resident aliens etc.), modern democracy is generally representative democracy, with decision-making passed to elected representatives of the people on the basis of the greatest number of votes gained at democratic elections.

While the United Nations requires only that a State is sovereign by having effective and independent government within a defined territory, modern states are – needless to say – a bit more complicated than that.

Money is behind much of the complexity.  The money required for a state to operate is equally international, with each country’s balance sheet containing in addition to its citizens taxes loans from the private sector and other purchasers of gilts and bonds.

In a democracy, sovereignty is granted to the government by the people and actions are carried out by the government in their name.
But countries can be seen to give over some of their ability to act independently (sovereignty) to their financial creditors – the added finance available to the country being for the general benefit of the people of the nation.

Greece’s position as a sovereign nation is also in the twenty first century inter-connected world context.  In addition to the national we also have supranational (e.g. EU and euro) and international (e.g. UN, IMF) layers of governance, providing us with both responsibilities (defence, finance, market access, honouring of commitments) but also support (financial, market access, political and military).  This is made contractual through Treaties – pooling of sovereignty granted by the people to the government shared with others at supra- or international levels for the general benefit of the people of the nation.

The question is that old point of “no taxation without representation”.  In a bailout situation between states, it is not only the taxpayers of Greece who have a legitimate interest in how Greece handles its debts but the taxpayers of the countries providing the help via the IMF and the Eurozone… welcome to the complicated world we live in.

So who can legitimately tell a country what to do is indeed a bit more complicated.

There is talk of just “letting Greece default” and cutting Greece loose from the Euro.
This is not something to be flippant about.  While a Greece-with-Drachma could devalue its currency against others in a way that Greece-with-Euro cannot, Greek default could cause a shockwave across the economy in the way that Lehman Brothers collapsing did.

If the Greek government were to default, it would not only be Greece that was affected – in taking money from others, Greece is part of an inter-related global political and financial system.

Nor would it only be Eurozone countries affected – French, German and American banks in Greece’s market and with Greek government gilts and bonds would be hit directly. This would affect the network connections between banks (that’s the way in which banks hold national debts, lend to each other and buy and sell loans).

And while Eurozone countries would be hit because of the common currency they have with Greece and the money they have put up to keep it afloat, it would also because of the inter-relatedness of their economies.
If Greece has its debt restructured (i.e. it pays out on its debts at less than 100 cents to the euro), Eurogroup leader (and Luxembourg Prime Minister) Jean-Claude Juncker has already warned of the contagion effect and potentially bleak prospects for Portugal, Spain, Ireland, Italy and Belgium. Greek debt restructured would be the mark-to-market of other European countries’ national debts.  And as Norman Lamont pointed out a couple of days ago on Radio 4 – it would beg the question whether a Euro in Ireland, Portugal etc. was worth the same as one in Germany – and when that happens the Euro itself fails. No sensible person could want that.

While the UK is not part of the Euro, we are also bound into this.  The UK has loaned money to the Greek government – we’ve already done so as part of our IMF responsibilities and would have to do so again.  It’s part of the deal in our pooled sovereignty at  international level.  And in case we are telling ourselves we should just think national, we ourselves have had an IMF loan within my lifetime, so it is part of our international role and responsibility.  The wider interconnectedness of international finance means our banks and our pockets would be badly hit by a destablised Euro.

That said, it seems the £95bn loan last year didn’t help because the cuts hit any prospect of financial growth and the markets don’t want to loan money to Greece.  Evidence of this is that Greek government bonds are already at 30% return rates (compared with 3% for the UK and 5% for Spain).
It remains to be seen whether throwing more money (another £196bn?) is enough to tip the balance or simply good money after bad.

But is there anything else that can be done?
In May 2011 at a conference in Lisbon hosted by Left Block and GUE/NGL, Unitarian Left at the European Parliament, French researcher Benjamin Coriat proposed an alternative to IMF bailouts:

  • the European economy should “break with financial markets”, imposing “conducting audits on public debts so that can be identified who owes and what owes and so we would see that after all creditors have to pay more than borrowers“;
  • The “European Central Bank must buy government bonds on the primary market in order to lower interest rates and leave the rating agencies out of the game”;
  • This would be accompanied by establishing a fair and balanced tax base in order to “reverse the counter-revolution” in which the rich get tax breaks;
  • there should be changes to macro-economic coordination in Europe towards achieving a balance between the centre and the periphery because “Germany can not only take the benefits of Europe and leave the disadvantages to the others”.

But this is in the realms of fantasy – and I can only assume that there were neither Germans (who are pretty annoyed with bailing everyone else out) nor anyone with a grasp of the sums of money involved in actually doing any of that in the audience?
Realpolitik also suggests that if the Euro is not seen to be functioning brilliantly, politicians are unlikely to want to grant more powers to the ECB.

Are there any other ideas out there?  Well, if Greece were a company, others would be sniffing round to buy it up at a bargain price rather than bail it out with the current management.  But happily for democracy, the crossover between capitalism and politics has happily not gone this far yet!

Anything else? American (and some German) economists propose a strong-economy Euro (e.g. Austria, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands), cutting loose weaker economies (e.g. Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain) for the good of all.  I can’t help thinking that one would go down particularly bad with the French…

But one thing is clear – the Greek government cannot give in to the street protesters.
Well, of course they can – but they’d need to think through the global consequences of doing so.
But if the street protesters want to change the government for another, democratically via the ballot box, that is of course their right.  Storming the parliament is not the way to do it.
But in a democracy, sometimes what is for the best for the people overall is not what is going to be popular.
Sometimes we have to elect people to do what we individually could not.
And honouring our international obligations matters, whether we’re debtor or creditor on the ask.

 

 

Hungary for wider Europe…

(image copied from the excellent http://www.runawayjane.com/first-impressions-of-budapest/ until I can download ours)

Jó napot!  We’re back from a long weekend in Budapest.  I know, leaving it late in the day for the Hungarian Presidency but since I stopped working full time on EU stuff, it has been increasingly hard to visit each country at Presidency time.

Arriving at Budapest airport we were immediately impressed with the efficiency (and price!) of the taxis from the kiosk there.  The half hour trip to the Buda hills took us through the city and across the Danube.
In the last few years I’ve been lucky to travel to several of the newer EU member states.  There’s a lot of difference, and a lot of similarity in the mix of the beautiful past and the Soviet past architecturally.  Like many cities Budapest is a mix of old and new, elegant rococo confections and bunion-topped towers alongside utilitarian boxes and brutalist concrete.   The Buda hills felt a bit like a more verdant Hollywood – they share that orangey-yellow colour on the Spanish-style villas, the beautiful, massive mansions and mansion blocks so at odds with the tiny tenements in the suburbs of the city.

We spent our three days on three different things.
The first day, in 30 degree heat and high humidity, we took our toddler on reins around old Buda. This was a mistake – we ended up carrying him for most of the time.  Definitely take a pushchair even if it uses up some of your flight luggage allowance.
We caught a bus to Moscow Square (Moszkva tér, which has just been renamed in Parliament as Kálmán Széll tér) – a weird transport hub with tatty 1970s kiosks at the centre, crumbling concrete steps and the older, nicer buildings around the outside branded with the universally familiar American corporate logos of McDonalds and KFC.  I liked the fountain and the plastic bottle-and-chicken-wire-filled plaster of Paris seating blobs though.  We though the underground loos – clean, thirty florints cheaper than most, take the prescribed number of sheets off  the communal loo roll at the pay station – was hilarious and very ex-communist in approach.

We walked a bit randomly – we had our map but our hot, tantruming toddler refusing to walk and instead of taking the short walk to the UNESCO protected castle district we ended up down on the riverfront directly opposite the gothic splendor that is the Hungarian Parliament building.  We had a coffee (and a toddler nap) while we found our bearings.  On the way to the castle we found Batthyány Square which includes an old train station that has been converted into a shopping mall and yummy pastries are sold in the entrance hall, and the St Anne’s church – a hidden gem of Buda.
We didn’t visit the royal palace but instead headed for Halászbástya (Fisherman’s Bastion) the light grey stone turreted walls around the Matthias church which look like castles should look if designed by little girls with a craving for real life Disney.  There’s a cafe up one turret if you fancy a drink rather than paying to walk the walls and the views are outstanding.
Amazingly, the steps there are in really good condition and perfectly spaced for climbing in the humidity of a Budapest summer.  The same cannot be said of the crumbling concrete steps and walkway at Moscow Square.
Oh yes, and to stamp your tickets on the bus, the manual ticket punch requires that you put your ticket in the top of the black plastic hole and tip the whole black bit towards you. The electronic ones don’t require you to pull them about at all!

On day two, we borrowed a pushchair, crossed the river on the tram and went into Pest.  We got out at Oktogon (junction of Nagykörút -Grand Boulevard- and Andrássy út – Budapest’s Champs Elysees).  Given that during the Nazi era, Oktogon was named Mussolini Square it seems fitting that the Terror Museum was located nearby.  Having been to the Latvian equivalent a couple of years ago, I knew pretty much what to expect there, but it was still moving.
The museum dedicates roughly equal time to the Nazi occupation and the Soviet era despite the different lengths of each period.  There is a massive black tank in the building’s internal courtyard, and the building itself is significant, having been both the Hungarian Nazi headquarters and used by the Communists.  Taking the stairs or the lift, you walk through a room of exhibits and film footage straight into a Hungarian Arrow/Nazi dining room complete with model in brown uniform, blackshirts on the wall behind you and crockery bearing the Nazi insignia.  Along with the wartime how-to film for correct wearing of your official uniform, Soviet-era listening equipment, the video testimonials of ordinary people and the interactive map of the gulags with prisoners’ belongings in cones, the biggest impact comes from the basement level.  It only takes a moment to realise, but the cells and chambers down there are real – prisoners of the regimes lived, were tortured and died there.
The specially composed music adds to the feeling of terror and you pretty much just want to get out.  The point is I guess that what is being come to terms with is that this was not just two occupations of Hungary, but occupations with which many ordinary Hungarians were complicit.  Confronting the past in this way is part of the healing process.

By way of celebrating capitalist freedom, we walked down Andrássy út which is lined with designer names.  We popped into Alexandre, the big bookshop, and admired its cafe’s ornate ceiling, but headed on down to the square by the National Bank of Hungary so that toddler could play on the play park and run through the dancing fountains there in his pants.  This is one of the top things for children to do in Budapest!  There was also a free music festival going on all over Budapest, and every new area we visited seemed to have something different going on.
We ate at TG Italiano – really lovely oregano bread, very good pizzas and wild boar pasta – but I’d steer clear of the lethal cocktails there if its a baking hot lunchtime…  We also visited the St Stephen’s Basilica, carrying the pushchair up the steps but while we were lucky to see a wedding taking place there, it limited our viewing of the inside of the basilica.  Heading down to Fashion Street we bought ice cream and then braved taking the pushchair on the metro system.  Wow – that was definitely a blast from the past.

On day 3, we pottered a little more – ice cream sundaes and Sajtos Pogácsa (cheese scones) at a local cafe, then a trip on the world famous children’s railway.  Another relic of the Communist era, this is a real railway service operated by 10-14 year old children (under adult supervision!) – we caught a heritage service with a little blue and white engine.
We had to prise toddler out or the driver’s cab once he realised you were allowed to go and see the train being driven!
At the end of the line, we caught a tram back down to a rather lovely little cocktail bar called Majorka – a nice way to round off the day (and just remember that just because the cocktails are a quarter of the price of those in London, you can’t drink four times as many!)

I was fascinated by the Angol shops – shops selling second hand clothes from English high street stores.  The story is that they came about in the immediate aftermath of the soviet era, when British charities sent clothes to Hungary and these became so popular that a secondary clothing market grew up around the surplus.
I also found the language almost impenetrable – not completely true, as a linguist I could pick out how sentencess were constructed and (almost) ordered my peach flavour ice cream correctly… apparently there can be at least eight different pronunciations of each vowel! I picked up “Jó napot” for hello and “Szia” (pronounced see ya and used like ciao) easily, but “Köszönöm” for thank you was hard and I would have been completely stumped by menus – I liked “Uditorial” as the word for soft drinks and guessed that “Naranča” was (like naranja in Spanish) oranges but “gombas” turns out to be mushrooms not prawns! – so we were lucky to be staying with friends and instead negotiating supermarkets and shops where a minimal amount of mime was necessary.

But visiting Budapest again reminded me why the European Union is important, not as a force of tyranny as it is presented in the UK, but as a protector of freedom, liberty and a way of ensuring that we never again see discrimination and oppression as a political force and neighbour turning against neighbour.
Visiting Prague, Riga, Bratislava and now Budapest shows me that when these things happen, its not that the people it happens to are somehow different to us, they are us.  It could have been us.  It’s why we should welcome Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and others that want to join and share our values.

And while we didn’t see everything we’d want to, we did a lot of exploring. I’d definitely go back to Budapest.

Banking on a better system?

As DG Markt Director General Jonathan Faull writes to the FT about the lobbying of Basel III and European Commission, and politicians and protesters with their “Banker Wanker” posters (and worse) blame the banks alone for the recent crisis and current financial climate…
the more windows get smashed or buildings occupied… I just wonder whether any of us really know what banks are for?

Put in really basic terms, banks basically do two things: they take in short term deposits and give out long term loans.  This is known as a “maturity transformation”.
But it seems that the major issues that caused banks to collapse were inability to properly manage this basic maturity transformation:

1)  running out of funding (like Northern Rock)
2) running out of cash (like Lehman Brothers)
3) inadequate risk management regarding quality of loans (primarily a problem in the USA).

We’ve heard a lot about the last bit, complex packages of bad debt and whatever.  Gordon Brown as PM blamed this third issue for the whole of the banking crisis.  But it is really quite simple: loans are things like mortgages, car loans, student loans, the sorts of everyday loan we can get our heads around.
Everything else is just a different way of packaging these up – e.g. as bonds to flog on the market.  That gives a different product which attracts a different sort of investor and therefore more money to be paid as interest, borrowed by those needing it etc.  Is this an inherently risky business?  Or is it the lack of transparency and understanding about what’s in the packages that’s risky?
I can’t help thinking it’s both the quality of the original loan and also management of the maturity transformation that are crucial here.

So banks borrow short and lend long.
Northern Rock basically seems to have run out of funding for its 25-year mortgages – for which it was borrowing a month at a time.  D’oh.
Lehmans, meanwhile, ran out of cash – a liquidity problem. As a sw you need to be able to pay up at all times.  Many deposits are repayable on demand, and banks have to assume they will be asked to do and if they can’t, the bank goes bust.
You can imagine Lord Sugar on The Apprentice shaking his head in disbelief that these simple concepts cannot be grasped by the self-proclaimed business experts standing before him.

While in the EU we were affected by the US sub-prime loans, unlike the US where these things were not really regulated, in the EU it was.  It’s not that banks don’t have capital standards – the existing Basel standards have been around for about 20 years.
So the Basel Convention and the European Commission are trying to design two metrics for the other two crisis causes to stop all this happening again.
There’s going to be a Lehmans Ratio – so that payments out can always be made for a month – and a Northern Rock Ratio (known as a Net Stable Funding Ratio) for a year’s funding.  And these new standards are being drawn up in just a couple of years.

Real care needs to be taken that the standards set are not so demanding that they will have a negative effect on the economy.
For example, one impact of the Northern Rock Ratio is that it reduces the amount of maturity transformation i.e. there’s more matching of assets against liabilities.  That means it is more difficult to fund long term.
Good, we might think – that means the wrong people won’t get loans.
But what about large scale infrastructure projects?  If we can’t fund them through banks, other sources of funding will need to be sought, such as the market.  And that brings a whole load of other insecurity…

While banker bashing is fun, it is not going to fix the system.  Nor will just breaking up the banks on its own fundamentally tackle this, as it risks making banking more expensive for consumers.  All these things really do is make it look as though the failure is distanced from the political decision making process – which of course it never can be.  Choosing not to act, failure to regulate or supervise effectively is a political decision just as much as choosing to do so.

The key question at the moment is whether our primary aim is to have processes for handling banks when they fail, or whether we should be focusing on building an economic system that doesn’t presuppose this.
As for the idea that if taxpayers don’t have to bail out the banks, we don’t have to pay, that’s to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of our economy.  

If a bank fails and we pay for nationalising it through our taxes, it’s a visible cost.
But the overall increase in costs from what may be politically attractive but economically risky metrics also affect us all – as shareholders, as mortgage borrowers facing increased interest rates or higher entry hurdles, as entrepreneurs with start-up needs or business owners looking to expand through loans, and crucially through our pensions.  Yes, you did read that right, reduced bank profits means reduced dividends which directly affect our pensions pots.
Ah, but not every one is affected, right? Mortgages, shares, workplace pensions… not everyone has them and this way the poorest don’t have to pay for the greedy bankers?  But given the lowest paid have been lifted out of tax, they wouldn’t have been hit that way anyway, so that’s just disingenuous.   We all pay.

And we shouldn’t, you may say.  Let the bankers pay!
Bankers get million pound bonuses!  Yep, some do.  In the UK, according to former City minister Paul Myners,  last year it was 5000 bankers out of a million people working in financial services.  Well, if we want to debate the inherent unfairness in pay and reward structures in our capitalist economist, and the value to the economy of farmers,  call centre workers, teachers -v- say, premiership footballers who merely kick a ball around a field for 90 minutes, that’s a whole other blog post. However distasteful the enormous pay packets seem to us, and the differential between the highest and lowest pay, I think we need to differentiate between our sense of social injustice and convenient scapegoating of the bankers.

If we are to think about an economy that is about economic growth and not on bank failure,  then we need to move away from the assumption that nothing can be done and these things just happen – somehow bubbles that burst bringing down the economy are an inevitability.
Alan Greenspan had a mantra that it is cheaper and easier to mop up after an economic bubble bursts.   He’s been proved wrong.
What we really need is a more mature way of thinking about bubbles.
Bubbles are very rarely economy-wide.  So if it’s a property bubble, we need to have targeted measures aimed at deflating that sector.  How do we tell if there’s a bubble?  Loads of economic analysts argue over this, but essentially it’s a bit like pornography – almost impossible to pin down but you know it when you see it…

Is there a bubble at the moment?  Well, not easily seen.
But some food for thought – LinkedIn was recently valued at what equates to $100 a user.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve not put $100 into my LinkedIn use and would withdraw my details before seeing them sold – so unless some people are putting in thousands of dollars, I can’t see how that worth is derived.  Is this a new 1990s style internet bubble?   Who knows?

But will all this activity make the banking system less likely to fail in future? Don’t bank on it.

Edit: 2014, and things have moved on a bit politically, including party politically, on which I of course have no intention of commenting further. This set of thoughts gives a snapshot of the situation in 2011, the basic functioning of banking and good governance.

True Finns- what just happened?


Finnish tshirt from www.zazzle.com – election of the true Finns risks a changed position for women in Finnish society

Eek.  Just listened to the BBC world service programme “World Have Your Say” on which friend and fellow Euroblogger Jon Worth just appeared.

The immediate EU concern is that – given the Finnish parliament has to vote on any agreed bailouts (or as Jon rightly points out, long term loans to stricken countries underwhich the lenders actually make a profit on monies loaned) – the Portuguese bailout may be delayed, or need to be changed.
The learning point from this – and the Netherlands, France, and elsewhere where the populist right is on the rise – must surely be that it is no longer acceptable to regard the EU as an inevitable grand projet, pushed forward by an elite with a common mindset, which the public will unquestioningly accept.  There needs to be more open and honest explanation of what is going on, what the proposed solutions are an the consequences of doing them and not doing them.  And while this is no doubt the economic big picture, it goes for wider policy making too.

However, there ought to be concern too because this party that just got 20% of the vote and may end up forming part of the next Finnish government apparently said that Finnish women should study less and stay at home producing more True Finnish children.
I’m appalled on so many levels at that statement.
This can’t be real, can it?  A progressive, Nordic country really just had an election in which True Finns was the only party to increase its share of the vote?
If you want to read a female Finnish bloggers perspective, I’ve just found this one.

In the meantime, welcome to the twenty first century.
We may be seeing democracy as a rallying point outside Europe, but we need to take greater care to remember that being elected is about representation, not just leadership.
And we also need to think about who is being represented.
If ever we needed proof that women’s rights have been hard won and are not inviolable, this is a wake up call.

So where are all the EU women?

Five inter-related thoughts on the theme of where are all the women:

1) I’ve been following an interesting debate over on Twitter.  Life’s a bit complicated technologically at the moment so my joining in Tweets haven’t all got there, but the gist of the discussion is this: why, when there is an EU-related panel discussion, is it so hard to find a panel with gender balance?  Or more than just one woman?  Where are all the women? (@europasionaria, @EuropeanAgenda @maitea6 @euonymblog)

2) Meanwhile, the European Women’s Lobby has drawn attention to the issue of where all the women are in the European External Action Service (just 36% at present – the petition calling for more can be found here)?  Just over one third?  Seriously, where are all the women?

3) At the same time (and there is a link here too, I promise), my care arrangements have suddenly got more complicated: it now offers half an hour less time in the evenings with no good reason offered for the change, meaning a much bigger risk of being late…
Then, for reasons best known to themselves, the public transport system in London has decided that I should have to have a minimum extra half hour journey a day…
And Eurostar has changed the timing of the Brussels train meaning it is now impossible to catch our care at the end of a day at meetings in Belgium…
Argh!  Logistics nightmare!  But I know I’m not alone in this.
Thousands of families have complications. Many sort it out quietly, anecdotally often by having another baby or someone downgrading or giving up work.  Does it have to be like this?

4) Are the EU women working part-time and thus unavailable, or not highly enough ranked to take part in the more public roles?
Short answer is no – not all women are mothers, not all women work part-time. But a big group do.
A quick look at the UK: is it possible to be both successful in your career and work part-time? In the UK public sector, broadly yes.
What about the private and voluntary sectors? Well, the right to request flexible working is out there, for parents and carers at present and with a good take up rate.  It’s less clear how many do not request for fear of career implications or pessimism about being turned down.
Also there is a prevailing view that somehow part-time and full-time labour markets are and should be separate.  Well, this makes no sense given the quality of individuals looking to work part-time whose skills and experience should not be confined to lower level roles (particularly now that the retirement age is gone and older workers might want to reduce their hours without actually leaving work altogether). It also makes no sense given the news that the huge majority of jobs created recently have been part-time (let’s just hope it doesn’t also mean that they’ve been low-paid ones).
Recently there’s been quite a lot of resentment in newspaper letters pages towards demanding parents who have made a “lifestyle choice” to have kids and should not expect any special treatment as a result.
Let’s leave aside for now the “who pays your pension” argument, though it should be made.
More immediately, is there actually anything wrong with parents wanting both to play a major role in bringing up their own children and also using the skills and talents that they’ve spent their lives building up for the profit of all?
And there also seems to be fear about employing women as it is just “more difficult” than employing men (a view openly expressed by working mother Katy Hopkins on BBC Question Time).
So can it be done?  Well obviously yes.
Are there any non-superwoman role models?
The Evening Standard ran a brilliant piece (not available online) on a London mother working a very senior design job at a well-known designer store part-time three days a week – but noted that her father had given her the role with some resistance from other decision-takers. Dammit, why does it take a father to demonstrate that it can work?

What about the EU institutions and related organisations?  Given that the institutions staff are not covered directly by EU legislation on part-time working etc., how exemplary are the institutions as flexible employers?
And what about the lobbying industry?
Or the voluntary sector in Brussels?
Do they expect the Belgian childcare system to step in so parents can work full-time? Is there any scope to work part-time?
And, given the likelihood that family are not close by, what happens when meetings run on past the 6pm childcare cut-off point? Or the essential networking sessions are all held in the evenings?

5)  Final thought: the gender pay gap (notional average wage difference figure) and indeed everything affecting where the women are job-wise, are complex and interconnected.
Not least because it all matters for men too.
Measures taken now might not have immediate effect, but it does not mean no action is necessary.  Governments across the EU, and the institutions themselves, are realising this and trying to do something about it.
Gender balanced panels would be one small step, but a visible one.

Britain outside the EU? Why not just head Down Under?

Wai-o-Tapu thermal wonderland, near Rotarua, NZ (lake of arsenic and sulphur!)

Over the last few weeks, despite 48 hours on aeroplanes, my husband and I have relaxed, unwound, found that we’ve been able to smile without complaints from facial muscles unfamiliar with the position.

Of course we’ve been back just more than 48 hours now, and I can already see the stress rising for my husband.  I have another 24 hours reprieve before its my turn, and I’m trying to make the most of the time available to me today.

The chance to take 3 weeks off is rare, especially in these straitened economic times when proving your value and how indispensible you personally are to your organisation’s success is equated with hours visibly in the office.  Being able to do so over Christmas, when everyone wants some time away, is doubly difficult.  So we had to book this time some months ago.

We’ve only really had access to Sky News and the occasional bit of BBC World, and I confiscated my husband’s work PDA, so we’ve been blissfully unaware of the news.  On return, I’ve just seen the Daily Express’s 24 page spectacular on how Britain should leave the EU, aimed, I assume to coincide with the EU Bill vote in the House of Commons today.
Take head, find brick wall, apply.

Well, I’ve spent my holiday in another part of the Commonwealth.  Does it show what Britain outside the EU would be like?
(Probably not, but it gives me the chance for a different take on a holiday blog post…)

New Zealand is very much like the UK with sunshine.  There are of course some differences, based on our observations:

1) the attitude to children is refreshing – they play outside, everyone talks to them and pats them on the head, they’re not regarded first and foremost as criminals waiting to happen.
The starting position is not that all adults around children are potential paedophiles.
It is simply not thought necessary to keep kids indoors for their own safety.
When needed, parents take responsibility for their children’s actions and support teachers and neighbours in expecting good behaviour and disciplining them.  This is simply not the case here – while there might still be children who, if they do something bad at school are a bit scared to tell their parents for fear of their disappointment in them, teacher friends tell me that more often than not these days parents are used by the child as a threat against the teacher…
But it’s not being in or out of the EU that affects this issue.

2) the attitude to nationhood is very different.
Everything is Kiwi this and NZ that.  Kiwiana, the celebration of all things New Zealand, is very popular not just for tourists but for New Zealanders on T-shirts, homeware etc.
The butt of NZ jokes is not England but Australia – in fact the Kiwis cheer on England in the Ashes.  This cricketing support for the sucess of what was originally the colonial country is not felt to be problematic for their own identity nor their fierce pride in national sporting success in other games.
NZ is not portrayed as innately superior or inferior to others, but as a young country and good place to be.  What it is not to be burdened with a successful past…
Children learn the national anthem (“God Defend New Zealand“) in English and in Maori at school, and sing it weekly.
Contrast this with nationhood in the UK.  We have more people, more complexity (local, regional, devolved, national, European and international political identities) but we seem somehow to expect citizens that are born here as opposed to naturalised, to somehow just know and understand it.  It’s not as if much clarity is provided by the press.  As the British system has evolved over millenia it is not simple, streamlined and created with a clear goal in mind – and yet we don’t explain our consitutional set up to ourselves.  This is clearly crazy.

3) the attitude to politics is…
impossible to compare.  Two weeks there, and what we noticed is:
i) politicians put great big photos of themselves onto the exterior walls of their constituency offices so everyone knows who they are and where to find them  -no one complains about this lowering property prices as far as we know!;
ii) the only policy that anyone can remember from the newly-elected mayor of Manukau is that he has made all the public swimming pools free for residents, the only part of Auckland Super-City to have this!;
iii) most ordinary people we met seem to think that the Wikileaked American assessment of the NZ foreign policy as reported in NZ press (that those in power were broadly supportive of the US while being vocally anti-American in the national press) was actually rather a sensible way of handling it.

4) the attitude to ethnicity and immigration is…
complicated.  My relatives have only once had “you don’t even come from here!” shouted at them – but they have residency and I understand in NZ this gives full voting rights.
But the truth is no one really comes from New Zealand.
Maoris have certainly been there longest (they came from Polynesia) and, unlike Australia, the colonisation of New Zealand was relatively peaceful and Maori language and culture is taught in schools.
For everyone else, while there may be some original POMs without choice, most chose to emigrate and the only question for those seeking to look down on more recent arrivals should be “wasn’t my parent/grandparent/ great grandparent just doing exactly the same thing?”
As for racism etc. I don’t know.  We were lucky enough not to witness anything first hand.

5) the attitude to faith is different.
While no more than about 20% of people attend a Christian church service regularly in the UK, it is thought to be closer to half of the NZ population.  And that’s before you look at other faiths.
We occasionally tie ourselves in knots in the UK about our Scots-crushing national anthem (looking worldwide, aren’t they MEANT to be embarrassing?), or what a song for the millenium should look like (even a decade or so on, I’m not sure that the sentiments of “Imagine” actually are any better than the winner “All you need is Love”), can you imagine the furore if we did actually try to change it?  Traditionalists -v- modernists would be nothing compared to having a mention of God -v- not mentioning God – nightmare.

6) So could the UK be more like NZ outside the EU?
And would anyone want it to be?
Leaving aside the completely different economic strengths and weaknesses which actually power this argument…

In any case I’m not exactly sure what the country the Daily Express wants the UK to be would look like.

The things I thought were positive about life in New Zealand came either from its geographical location (good weather, lovely countryside, spectacular landscapes, lots of beaches, proximity to Asian markets for goods), or from marginal policy differences (how the education system is run giving more freedom to teachers to teach, and an insurance based health system that’s more affordable).

We can do nothing about the UK in the sense of the first of these (unless we employed magical giants to tow us elsewhere on the globe?) and very little that the EU stops us from doing that we would want to do in the second sense (neither how schools systems nor health systems are run is covered by the EU).
In terms of our wider institutional set up, yes the EU does affect the UK and sometimes things are not set up exactly how we would’ve designed them from scratch in a UK-only situation.  But we rarely vote against, not because the UK is a poor or weak negotiator but because it is a strong one that achieves its main objectives and recognises the value of being inside pissing out, so to speak.  This is clearly no longer considered enough for the Daily Express – but it is hardly the tyranny portrayed.
But how free is NZ to do its own thing?  NZ is part of the Commonwealth and the UN and the WTO, is bound by international courts, the law of the sea, has a free trade agreement with ASEAN and many other countries, ANZIL and PILON… in fact it is not an island and a law unto itself but a fully-interconnected part of the world.

Anything else about NZ that is conforting for the UK citizen looking for the famliar abroad?

They drive on the left.  In the UK there’s a constant euromyth that the EU might FORCE us to change that (not that the EU can do that anyway, I hasten to add…).
They still teach French, though as a third language in schools after Maori and English (but with an increasing emphasis on Japanese and mandarin Chinese).
European goods are still available – albeit at a hefty mark-up.

Being on the other side of the world (and having travelled via the USA), I noticed how European we are as a family.
Although having lived abroad ourselves we could probably easily slot into an expat community just about anywhere, we are just more comfortable living in Europe.  I love its sheer diversity, and if you want to read more of my reasons for loving the place, you can do so here.

I don’t want to conclude this other than in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, so here goes:

Are you disillusioned with Britain in the EU, which is after all your country and your constitutional situation to be proud of but you may have decided you don’t like (NB I can’t see how that point of view should automatically be thought to make you MORE patriotic than someone that does like the UK consitutional set-up?)?
Well, if you are under 45, in a wanted profession such as teaching or policing, attracted by the picture of a country painted here which is different but not too different, why not consider a move to the other side of the world?
It’s got spectacular scenery, it’s part of the Commonwealth, and it’s a generally lovely place to be.
It’s not right for me, but then I’m a European at heart.
But are you?

Asking for the impossible

I’ve just read the Spectator magazine’s comment on David Cameron’s trip to Brussels on Thursday.

For obvious reasons, the article focuses up front on what eurosceptic right wingers in the UK might want the Prime Minister to do and say there.  And rightly dismisses them.
Without a written constitution the UK seems to have less protection than, say, Germany on issues that affect us at a constitutional level.
But -as Foreign Secretary William Hague made clear in his party conference speech– actually we already have most of the protection we would want.  The 1973 European Communities Act can always be repealed, most people would expect a referendum were there to be another treaty (I think this is A Bad Thing due to the complete lack of understanding about the EU in the UK, and probably the worst mistake of Blair’s premiership after Iraq but that pass has been sold now).
What we cannot have is a law that says that the UK parliament can introduce law that conflicts with EU law and expect it to stand – the point about a single market is that we agree to the same rules for a level playing field for business, consumers and workers.
That would be asking for the impossible.

But the European Commission and European Parliament are also asking for the impossible.
Asking for a 5.9% budget increase (plus extras if you are the EP) is simply not credible when everyone else is cutting back.  And as for direct taxation, how much do the institutions want the public to hate the EU?
Seriously, I’m already hurting enough due to the austerity measures my own national government is introducing, and that’s including things like taking the cap off rail fare increases meaning my season ticket could cost £8000 a year by the end of this parliament (2015).
What on earth is the EU going to do with that sort of increase in funding that actually going to help me in my day to day life? And I say this as someone who starts from a EU-positive position!

Then there’s France.
As one website puts it “France on general strike while Britain watches the X Factor and Wayne Rooney”.
We’ve had our pension age put up to 66, they’re striking over an increase to 62.  We’ve had our universal child benefit removed, public sector pension contributions increased plus a pay freeze (that’s something like a 12% pay cut in real terms), pension tax relief  on private sector pensions capped etc.etc.  They have a strike with a slogan “the right to benefits”.
I love France.  I’ve mentioned before the dream of a little coastal B&B and a slower pace of life. Rioting is not civilised but you can’t help admire the determination to keep the way of life to which they have become accustomed. Are the Brits lazy, apathetic or just more pragmatic?

When Jose Manuel Barroso gave his state of the Union speech earlier this year, he said that we needed an “open debate without taboos“.
So far this seems to have been code for attacking the UK budget rebate.  As I said previously the Budget Commissioner has already screwed any prospect of sensible debate on this issue in the UK press, as Sunday’s Sunday Express front page amply demonstrated (oh and this one earlier in the week).

I need to spend more time reading www.capreform.eu before I full understand the issues, but Sarkozy is quoted as sayingI say clearly, I would be ready to have a crisis in Europe before I accept the dismantling of the common agricultural policy. I will not let our agricultural sector die“.

Really?

This, surely is the chance then, for everyone else in the CAP reforming group to put Strasbourg on the table.
Ok, Sarkozy, we saw you’d rather have an EU crisis than dismantle CAP.
If we are to accept this archaic and expensive drain on our resources, you should accept that we will not tolerate the Strasbourg circus every month.
This would be a genuine issue of EU interest, and would be one of the most positive things that the EU could do for the public – ending something which is a visible waste of their money, showing that they care about what we are going through.
There will of course be a range of other vested interests that are likely to get in the way of this happening.  There always are.
But surely this is a chance to push for one seat for the European Parliament (Brussels) – which is a coalition agreement commitment for the UK government.
Under any other circumstances going in with this would be asking the impossible…

What the EU should have said…

… about the death of Norman Wisdom.

Norman Wisdom in Torbay bookshop

British comedy actor Norman Wisdom died this week, aged 95.
A slapstick star, he was in recent years enjoying a renaissance in Albania and in Russia.

Being the sort of EU girl geek that I am, this has of course reminded me about the European Parliament (what else?)
A former MEP used to tell a story about interpretation in committee.
As someone that mananged to get the Francis Urqhart quoteyou might well think that, I couldn’t possibly comment” into my response during a tricky debate in Council working group one day, I’m not averse to a bit of monolingual word play to lighten the debate for at least some of the meeting participants. And full kudos to the particular interpreter who managed this one.
But I digress.

During an especially tedious budget debate, a particularly pompous norther French MEP had the floor as was imploring his colleagues to use their wit, their determination and calling on their regional antecedents to find a way through…
This was interpreted as “we could all use a bit of Norman Wisdom”.

And so say all of us.

Imagine how much more fun some of the debates would be with a bit more slapstick humour involved…
RIP Norman.