Monday, 11 February 2013

Oh what a lovely war...

Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the "Great War".  Most of it happened on a front no wider than what you'd need to put a modern shopping mall on, which ran from the English Channel to the Swiss border. The total butcher's bill was over 18 million dead, of whom 7 million were civilians. It only lasted four years. Most of the people who will commemorate this conflict will have hardly heard of it and have only the vaguest notions of history anyway, since it is being pushed off school curricula in most European countries. They are not learning either that the EU has made war in Europe a thing of the past.

The EU budget that has now been adopted in Brussels (at least by the Heads of government, the European Parliament may still find the courage to throw it out) represents around 1% of total EU GDP. The marathon debate in the European Council was about app. 1% of that 1%.

According to official figures from Eurostat, in 2011, EU member states spent 49.1% of national GDP through general government expenditure. The cost of government overheads (wage bills, etc.) has continued to rise in those countries which were the most drastic cost cutters in Brussels last week. Much of European austerity (outside Greece, Portugal, Ireland, and Spain) is not what it seems.

Right on queue, Europe was hit by a scandal about horse meat of obscure origin in Findus hamburgers, put there by dodgy wholesalers playing nooky with our food chain. The single market so beloved of the British government seems to need more Europe -  not less - to police it. So does consumer protection, the Erasmus programme of student exchange, regional development, etc. The claim that this is a budget for growth and jobs is laughable.

Mr Cameron has hailed it as "a good deal for Britain" as usual, and he will no doubt attend the war commemoration ceremonies next year with the solemnity and stiff upper lip that is expected from him. But he won't have the slightest idea about the worrying historical link between that war and the way his government is wrecking the European project.

Carel Edwards, Brussels, 11 February 2013  


Monday, 28 January 2013

Of death and taxes

Who remembers the French presidential elections? They were civilised, almost too much so. Most of the debate was either obscure or unashamedly populist, and miles removed from the needs of a country struggling with both economic crisis and social disintegration. France is in decline (who isn't?). French universities have now dropped out of most international ratings. The business climate is so bad that London alone has more than 300.000 French expats who left their country - reluctantly for the most part - to seek their luck elsewhere. The labour market is half frozen by heavy-handed laws that make hiring and firing a risky business. The rich, but also many firms,  are leaving the country to set up business elsewhere to loud protests and calls for trade protection - like in the 1930s.

What is different though is that today, France has a ruinously generous social protection system, yet it parks its low paid, unemployed and immigrants in sink estates which form grubby tide marks around  often beautiful cities: rings of low quality housing with bad services and high crime rates. Drug trafficking is a parallel social and economic order on these estates. Much of it is low level cannabis trading but it is highly organised. The police has long since withdrawn from many of these places, leaving the dealers to terrorise their own kin and the dwindling numbers of "real" French people who are still there because they can't afford housing in better areas. It is a ticking time bomb.

There are similar stories in other countries around the world, but few have the French obsession with the "Grand état", the great state, a thing full of pride and strength run by great administrators. The French are still proud of their state but doubt is seeping in as it fails to keep France in its rightful place. De Gaulle, in his memoires, writes that it is typically French to call for progress, hoping that nothing will actually change. Thus, the promises made by François Hollande (creation of tens of thousands of public sector jobs, etc) are shown up for the fantasy (and lies) that they are.
The creepy prospect that now faces Europe however - since David Cameron's speech - is that it may have to depend on a Franco-German axis in which France is trying hard not to slide down to the status of, say, Spain. Maybe it will be a German Europe after all then.

Cameron's long suicide note (not his, the British economy's) makes a fair point or two.
One is what he says about the institutional impasse in Brussels. The Commission is indeed unwieldy, with one representative for each member state. He forgets to explain however that this has enabled  his own officials and diplomats to wipe their boots on the European treaties, as they have been doing  in the discussions about the EU budget for some time. UK (and Dutch, German, Danish...) attempts at getting through political decisions by breaking the law is hardly what you'd expect from a government that wants "another Europe".

David Cameron and François Hollande's policies couldn't be more different, but Cameron too is presiding over the slide of a once stable "civitas" into a broken collection of economic and social interests, each with its special claims but with a declining stake in society as a whole. This is not surprising, since in the UK the state has for years been turning over the provision of public services to private interests. The EU, made up mostly of centre right governments, has been on the same daft   wavelength for years.
In a country like Britain this is re-creating a sort of Ancien Régime tax farmer system, whereby private individuals decide how much people are going to pay for essential goods and services, thereby generating steady private incomes for services that used to be largely supported by general taxation because they were in the public interest. We cannot do without railways, gas, higher education, etc. so choice doesn't come into it. And as people pay more and more for these third worldish services, their taxes are still going up. The decline of the middle classes in Europe is not simply traumatic for the people concerned as they see their incomes and pensions decline and prices rise. The growing gap between rich and poor in Europe (and the rest of the West) will ultimately destroy the knowledge base and the consumers that our economies depend on. 

Carel Edwards, 30 January 2013

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Europe's internal borders

This post is not by me, it is by James Panichi, an Australian journalist based in Brussels who tries - quite successfully - to understand how the Belgians are coming to terms with the cards that history has dealt them. All credit to him and "Inside  Story".

Go to

Carel Edwards
15 January 2013

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Epistle to the Eurosceptics

Ever since the banking crisis began to roll, politicians the world over have been caught in a dilemma: how to make the people who vote for them pay the cost of one of the most disastrous policies that they - the politicians - have embraced since the late 1970's: deregulation of financial services. The banking crisis is usually blamed on the banks. But the financial sector could never have even started out on this particular road to hell if the politicians of the great democracies hadn't embraced the sadly flawed notions of  von Mises, von Hayek, and Friedman.

The damage done will probably take a generation to clear up. When we get back on our feet again we are likely to find that some things have gone for ever, such as many public services, the social emancipation and progression that life in the middle-class used to offer, or the idea that the weak and needy in our societies are not necessarily scroungers. Moreover, the relationship between labour and employers is changing back to a harsher model reminiscent of the industrial revolution - and "labour" includes academics and skilled craftsmen as well as the lower skilled. The steady rise in the numbers of  poor in the West is also now becoming visible and is well documented.

More than 50 years after WWII, it is striking how the populations of Europe accept to pay for this mess. Yes, there is plenty of protest, but none of it is particularly organised or constructive. Many European countries with seriously unbalanced budgets are however fundamentally quite prosperous. The austerity they are inflicting on confused electorates has an old fashioned tinge of class enmity about it.

To preach austerity to the poor and frail has become a sign of political manhood in Europe. But the Northern belt of EU states have now sunk their teeth in one of their oldest bug bears: the EU budget and its civil service. And why not? Why should public servants be spared when the people as a whole are suffering? The thing is that the national public services, at least in the "sensible" Northern countries of the EU, are not really suffering at all.

Let's take the case of The Netherlands - one of the most eager cost cutters in Brussels. The Dutch state employs more than one million people for a population of some 16.5 million. 160.000 are "real" civil servants in the sense that they work for government departments.They have received salary increases of more than 10% since 2008. The EU institutions employ 33.000 people for a population of half a billion people. In other words, the EU is run by what is roughly the number of staff employed by an English County Council, or rather less than the 44.000 employed by the city of Paris. The cost of the EU administration is 8 percent of one percent of total EU GDP. The sort of money Icelandic banks used to shift in a day. Real Wages in Brussels have been dropping since 2004 by up to 20%. Contrary to what "certain media" put about, EU civil servants' pay and conditions are average for international organisations and are on a par with Nato, the UN and its many agencies, the World Bank, the IMF, the Council of Europe, etc.

Honestly though, no one today is going to shed a tear over Eurocrats having their salaries and pensions reduced, not with 20% unemployment in Spain and drastic cutbacks in health services in Britain. But that is not the point. The real point is that app. half the legislation of the member states is actually EU legislation, much of it affecting people's jobs and lives. The basic principle of the EU civil service is that you want it to be beyond the reach of national governments as well as beyond temptation to be anything other than totally scrupulous and incorruptible. That is the basis of pay and conditions of all international officials around the world, particularly if they have direct authority. There is also the question as to why it is that the richest member states of the EU - with some of the most highly paid public servants in the world - have gone on a slash and burn spree in the EU budget this year. If they succeed, the number of Swedish, Dutch, German and British nationals drafting legislation and controlling national budgets from Brussels will sink even lower than it is today.

So what's the bottom line? It is that one day your national treasury will be visited by a team of Commission auditors made up exclusively of Greeks, Romanians, and Spaniards. What's wrong with that? Am I a racist? No, but I remember the fuss about Polish plumbers some years ago. I am simply anticipating the reaction of the populist media in London, Budapest, The Hague, etc.

Carel Edwards


Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Europe, the active volcano.

Europeans who still have some sense of history are smelling a whiff of old toxic vapors.

For thousands of years, great migrations have emerged from the Eastern plains to fight their way into the crowded peninsular on the Western edge of Asia since known as Europe. As Slavs, Celts, Goths, Magyars, Longobards, Saxons, Christians and Muslims, Protestants and Catholics, clashed for generations, the outcome has often been like the shifting of tectonic plates. In Europe's history of striking ferocity  nations were born or abolished, religions exiled or established. The siege of Sarajevo in our time may have been shocking, but that is largely due to our naive belief in the end of history and the politically correct self-delusion that all races and creeds should naturally get on with each other in what is now surely an age of reason. If you think it is, go and talk to the mothers and widows in Srebrenica. That happened in 1995. You can get there in an easy day's drive from any number of EU capitals.

The Greek crisis for its part has (re)awakened a distasteful superiority complex in swathes of northern European populations, about work-shy southerners who have only themselves to blame for squandering hard-earned cash, hard-earned that is by Germans, Dutchmen, etc. Little is said in the North European popular press about the fact that much of the money the Greeks owe was lent eagerly by German  banks for instance, not least to buy German-made capital goods which the Greeks clearly couldn't afford, such as German Type 214 submarines. (Where is American surplus equipment when you need it?). Even normally respected politicians and observers in these North European countries seem to have lost the EU plot, their  moralising and hectoring rivaling the Tea Party in moronic platitudes about complex issues. Immigration - and the integration of immigrants - is such an issue. It has been shockingly mismanaged and is coming to haunt a street or school near you. Manuel Barroso, the  EU Commission's president - and hardly a firebrand -  has even spoken out against irrational soundbites by European leaders who take one decision in Brussels and say the opposite as soon as they get back home.

Xenophobic stereotyping is rife in Europe. It is an essential part for its historic addiction to suicidal wars. The EU was designed to change all that, and to a large extent it has succeeded. It all began to wobble though,  when Europe embraced economic/financial deregulation along with the rest of the West. It got worse when Europe failed before the eyes of the world to deal with the Yugoslav problem. Then it blundered into one of those "March of Folly" moments with a hasty and bungled absorption of former Communist block countries, and when it launched a common currency without a solid political or fiscal authority behind it. The poorer nations went off shopping with mummy's new Euro credit card. I would have done the same.

Bringing Romania and Bulgaria into the EU (against the advice of Commission experts, who said they weren't ready but were told to shut up) has changed the nature of Europe. These countries, and Hungary is no better, were and are nowhere near the standards of law abiding democracies (the EU has recently made that official). We have no answer in Brussels to the semi-criminal classes that run much of the Balkans, nor against the old Hungarian spectre of hard-handed authoritarianism, racism, and unbridled nationalism. And so, with the Roma, we now have political refugees from within the EU, but we are legally unable to treat them as such because they come from EU Member States, countries that have signed up to the EU Treaties, and who must therefore be deemed to be democracies.

The reality of our European history is that some deep cultural/religious/ethnic fault lines run through our nation states. The Balkans, Switzerland, Belgium, the Baltic States, Ireland, etc. They all have in common that they  have dominant and dominated cultures, religions, or languages within their borders. We exported the problem to Canada centuries ago, but as in the case of Switzerland, it is one of the rare countries to have found a workable and civilised solution to multilingualism. In Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, a long history of repression of minorities, the struggle against the Ottomans, and arbitrary border tracing by the great powers in the past are proving more than a match for the civilising influence of EU membership.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The botanical and medical origins of opiates are mostly European

Much of what I'm going to say is straight from an article by Mike Jay in the London Review of Books of 21 June. The book is "Opium: Reality's Dark Dream" by Thomas Dormandy (Yale, ISBN 978 0 300 175325), I recommend it to the serious student of the history of drug policy. It helps to explain how we got where we are today, or rather, why our seemingly sensible policies only seem to make things worse. Much of what I'll say next is pure plagiarism, but I hope LRB and the authors mentioned will see it as free advertising.

Opiates are thousands of years old. As a drug they haven't changed, nor has our metabolism. The difference between feeling good on it and being dead is uncomfortably small, hence the reluctance of many medical men in ages past to use it. This is supposedly why Philips II of Spain, Charles II of England, and Lois XIV were among the masses who in their time died of protracted and unnecessary agony (as millions still do in poor countries today, thanks to the moral casino known as the INCB). The agony was unnecessary because opium as a painkiller was well known at the time. But doctors always know best. A 12th century medical man noted that many visitors to Mecca were "dangerously obsessed with their craving", still a problem today if the Saudi police are to be believed. Avicenna warned about the addictive and euphoric effects, and advised to collect your fee before dosing the patient, etc.

It wasn't until the 19th century that society begins to see pain relief as a necessity rather than a luxury. The spread of TB in the middle classes helped. As Mike Jay says "Despite resistance from some medical and religious authorities who maintained that pain was a physical or spiritual necessity, the use of opium to relieve it came to seem no more than common kindness". Palliative treatment had arrived, at least in the rich world.

As production was increased to feed this market, prices dropped. Opium was often cheaper than alcohol (and did a lot less damage in a crudely industrialising world). The article gives a tantalising vignette of Britain's most notorious opium growing area, the "poppyland" of the East Anglian fens, an area I know well, and more traditionally English than that you can hardly get. "Shopkeepers on market days would line up tots of laudanum tincture on their counters for visiting farmers to drink on the spot, with...bottles and jars of pills to see them through the week". For anyone who knows this area of England the image is surreal.

Opium had been known in China for ages, but he article claims that it was introduced, at least on the scale that European colonial powers were behind it, as an additive to Dutch tobacco, hence the design of the opium pipe, offering a way of more efficient vaporisation, inhalation, and a more intense high (at a time when most Europeans were still drinking the stuff).The market-induced Chinese custom transformed the drug from a private medication into a a convivially shared intoxicant, giving it ultimately its decadent and sinister, alien image.

By 1860 morphine had been developed out of opium, vastly improving its effectiveness as an (addictive) painkiller. Just in time really: By that time the American Civil War (the biggest single war of the 19th century) had created 50.000 amputees (not to mention 620.000 dead). It had accounted for the distribution of  more than ten million doses of morphine. Morphine addiction becomes a fairly familiar phenomenon in the States and elsewhere. By 1885 the American physician J.B. Mattison is quoted in the article as claiming that a third of all New York Doctors are morphine addicts. This led to problems in the medical professions (and their families).

And here we get to today's conundrum. This is where, in the US, addiction begins to be seen as specifically "un-American", not just immoral but rendering people decadent and socially useless. The latter is important. Henri Bergeron, in "Sociologie de la Drogue" makes a similar point about the social/political issue with drug use: the effect of drugs takes the form of a withdrawal from society (unlike alcohol, normally) and removes the citizen as a social actor and tax payer, thus rendering the state irrelevant. Not something the French are keen on.

By WWI legislation was coming in in various countries, as millions of men were given morphine on the battlefields of Europe. The article mentions one of the first prosecutions under the new laws, against Harrods of London, for selling gift-wrapped packets of morphine for friends and loved ones at the front. It goes on to describe the rising tide of drug control legislation as the 20th century progresses, and the growling moral tone of some of those laws. In the US, the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 stated that addiction was not a disease but a "self-inlicted moral infirmity". Like today's multilateral system of drug control, those laws failed to address the issue with any success. Heroin makes its appearance and is sold in cough mixtures and other over-the-counter products until 1913. WWII's demobbed heroes included untold numbers of men and women with amphetamine addictions induced by liberal but official prescription by the military. By 1946 the mob begin to control the drugs market, and the rest his history.

I leave you to read the book for the more constructive and well-founded conclusions, but this is an intelligent account of how the "disease model" of addiction is very imperfect to say the least. It tends to have much more support among policymakers than in the medical profession. So much for the evidence base. We still have a long way to go.

Carel Edwards

Friday, 1 June 2012

Shared irresponsibility

Europeans have lost the taste for armed conflict. They have been there and done that.
They don't like the war on drugs much either, which is why Europe has been a relatively civilised place in terms of drug issues for some years now, favoring harm reduction and tolerance over the sort of mass incarceration that we see in the US. 
We buy this peace for ourselves at the cost of keeping firmly out of the debate that increasingly desperate Latin American countries are trying to get us involved in. Last December's Tuxtla Declaration - and the Cartagena meeting that followed - clearly called on the consumer regions to experiment with market solutions, i.e. regulate the market in order to take it out of the hands of organised (and not so organised) crime. The Europeans are deaf to these pleas, that goes for the media as well as the governments. 
It seems that we are even beginning to prefer a "Stronger European response to drugs" (see previous posts on the EU Commission's Communication).  If words could solve problems we'd be home and dry, but studies done for the Commission itself have shown that it is very hard to find any reliable data that allow us to make a causal link between public policy and drug use in the first place. That goes for demand, but the situation is even worse for supply control; law enforcement does not like to be evaluated or scrutinised, certainly not by a bunch of bureaucrats in Brussels. As a result, we haven't a clue whether (very costly)  police intervention against drug trafficking is having any effect, but in this respect we are no different from any other major block or country. 

So where does this leave the European approach to drugs? More and more European countries are probably in breach of the UN Drug conventions today, at least by the standards of the now Inquisition-like INCB. If Europeans (and quite a few other countries) have no appetite for reviewing the conventions it is partly because they are afraid to open a Pandora's box (you might end up with something worse), and partly because they have a big economic crisis on their hands. But above all, I believe that it hasn't sunk in yet in the world's major drug consumer markets that the only way to take organised crime out of the market structure is for states to produce certain types of drugs themselves and to regulate the sale of them. This won't happen tomorrow; the idea is a vote killer and distasteful to large parts of public opinion, but growing pressure from Latin American countries, where states are crumbling under the effects of our inconsistent policies, may yet turn the tide. 

On 29 May, European members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy met in Brussels with members of the European Parliament and officials of the EU Commission and Council. They were Michel Kazatchkine, Executive Director of the Global Fund for AIDS, TB, and Malaria, and Pavel Bem, architect of the Czech drug policy and former Mayor of Prague. Both are medical doctors with extensive experience in political life. They called on the EU to strengthen its comprehensive and balanced approach, and to resist the siren voices of the new "tough" approach advocated by the EU Commission. To quote Pavel Bem: in politics, simple solutions to complex problems are the road to hell.

A full report on the Brussels meeting should appear soon on the website of IDPC and the Global Commission itself.