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.  

Monday, 26 March 2012

Unleash the dogs of criminalisation.

The history of criminalisation is one of casting first stones, scapegoating and of tribes seeking safety in convention. It is an entirely understandable and necessary social reflex, but possibly the most abused of all. Much of criminalisation is indefensible by almost any moral standard; from the spuriously sadistic retributions threatened by the great religions, via heresy to witch burning, to castration of young inmates of church-run boarding schools (recently revealed to have taken place in the Netherlands in the '50s). And then there is the one recent example of potential decriminalisation that beats them all: the Moroccan law that allows a rapist to marry his victim in order to save her honour (sic). Yet, my friends from LEAP, who have spent much of their lives at the sharp end of criminalisation, have explained to me just how little time the average law enforcement officer gets to spend on dealing with "proper" crime, like murder, rape and arson, and how much time goes into controlling kids with "substances" in their pockets, never mind harassing respectable housewives with substances. Which must be one of the reasons why the US has the largest prison population in the world: a quarter of the world's prisoners for 5% of the world's population - more than China - and a rate seven times higher than Europe.

But we Europeans like to learn from our American friends: the recent violent life and death of Mohammed Merah, in France, has prompted President (and candidate) Sarkozy to promise criminalisation of such things as visiting Jihad web sites, going to areas like eastern Afghanistan for no good reason , etc. Law enforcement officers and judges take note: when that woman from Médecins sans Frontières with the North African features (because her Algerian grandfather fought in the French army) checks into Charles de Gaulle  off a flight from Kabul, pull her out of the queue.  OK, it's election time, but we already have crazy laws, like the one making it an offence to deny the holocaust. Not that I believe denial of historical facts should be encouraged, but the holocaust is one of history's most documented and undisputed facts, and those who do deny it are usually so implausible (or mad) that they strengthen the holocaust case every time they open their mouths. I also get this queasy feelings sometimes about the 900,000 or so Germans who died in the allied bombing of their cities in WW II, most of them civilians, their memory unprotected by laws criminalising denial or even trivialisation of what happened to them.

The act of criminalisation always raises the issue of what is permissible in lawmaking when judging those who are not like yourself. "Otherness" (l'altérité" in french) is a familiar concept in sociology and anthropology. It is the mainspring of tribal and racial conflict which can lead to the sort of massacres I have mentioned. It was probably the greatest single factor in anti-semitism throughout the ages (that and owing money to Jews). It is one of the toxic by-products of immigration, not because immigrants are bad, but because today many (European) host countries  park their immigrant communities in no-hope housing with no-hope education, keeping them quiet with welfare but making it extremely difficult for them to belong, even if they do get through the social barriers. This doesn't justify shooting Jewish school kids or former soldiers, nor for that matter, cutting Theo van Gogh's throat or planting bombs on the London tube, but it should warn us that this may have to be dealt with in other ways than criminalisation. Killing people is already a crime.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012


The International Narcotics Control Board has now repeatedly attacked Bolivia since it denounced the 1961 Convention, indicating its intention to re-accede with a reservation allowing for the traditional use of coca leaf. Bolivia has been acting within the normal procedures of international law and its own constitution on this matter. The squeals of protest it has met with from its European, American, and other "friends" have contained little in the way of argument other than INCB's recent contention that "the integrity of the international drug control system would be undermined".

It is interesting to see a body like the INCB overstepping the mark of its own powers under the UN treaties by playing God, with little regard for the inviolability of the national laws and cultures that are the bedrock of the UN system. “The INCB response is another clear sign that the UN drug control regime is under strain and that the cracks in the so-called ‘Vienna consensus’ are approaching a breaking point,” according to TNI’s Martin Jelsma. “It is a sign that its principal guardian, the INCB, is in distress and no longer capable of responding to challenges in a rational manner.”

Why this persistent refusal on the part of the multilateral system of drugs control to enter into a meaningful dialogue on reform of the Conventions? A South American diplomat recently put in the following terms: back in the 16th century, when the Catholic church was no longer capable of reform, it spawned the Reformation and lost its monopoly over Christianity. Without dramatising current events, the multilateral drug control system is showing its age and revealing the sclerosis of the institutions created to implement it. The tabloid tone of the INCB's latest report is a sign of this.

Last December, Presidents and other political leaders of ten Latin American countries from the so called Tuxtla Mechanism for Dialogue effectively called on the rich drug consumer markets, primarily the US and Europe, to begin with experimenting regulation models for what we still call illicit drugs. US and European media largely ignored this declaration. These countries made this call because they are being destroyed by organised crime. The UN Drug Conventions have not created this crime, but they have created a global framework in which it prospers almost by default. The struggle against such crime is turning into a slaughter house for ordinary people, particularly in Central America, with no end in sight.

If the church will not reform then let us put our faith in a reformation and support the Tuxtla appeal. As a European, I hope that Europe will not yet again be trumped by the Americans in getting us out of a hole. It may not look likely at the moment, but 16 US states have enacted laws that allow for the sale of "medical marijuana, and at least there is a lively debate going on there, whereas EU leaders are firmly looking the other way and the Brussels administration has quite lost its way. Sooner or later though, our governments will have to grasp the nettle of organising this regulated market. If there is one lesson to be learned from the tobacco and alcohol models it is that it should not be left to purely commercial interests.

Watch this space.