Thursday, 10 September 2015

So, what are we going to do about the refugee crisis?

It is Europe's fault. As clear as crystal, it is our fault. When Africa and the Middle East were decolonised back in the post-war period, many previous occupiers just upped sticks and moved back to their capitals, leaving those behind to fend for themselves. They did not leave sufficient depth in the remnant institutions for those countries to maintain the relative peace and unity of the colonial days. Let us be honest here, what I mean is people did not fight each other under occupation as they had their foreign lords and masters as a common enemy. British colonies faired the best, with the majority of them being bequeathed the institutions and laws which have turned them into fairly successful countries in their own ways (barring a few abysmal failures), but it does not mean at all that they are exonerated. Most colonisers more or less lowered their flags, played the bugle and scuttled off home again, the only real leftovers being the languages inherited from their previous overseers.

The West's guilt
What these powers also did was divide up the Middle East and Africa in such a way that there were no real ethnic or religious boundaries, and for a reason: the French and British were worried about Arab unity. If the Arabs were able to unite under only a few leaders, they might become powerful and ultimately dangerous to European dominance. Look at India today. The Sykes-Picot deal made the area so unrealistically divided, bringing in kings, sheiks, presidents and dictators to rule the area, often being replaced when they had outrun their use, that it would keep them busily at each other's throats for decades to come. They needn't have worried so much - sectarian skirmishes and various long-lived grudges didn't take long to appear. And so the plan worked enormously well. Even when the region tried to unite under the umbrella of the United Arab Republic, a kind of EU-prototype conjoining of Ba'athist regional powers Syria and Egypt, it did not last long when one of the two member states underwent a coup d'état. Iraq was also hoping to join this group, and if it had, the momentum may have swung other regional powers behind the union, so chances are high the Syrian coup d'état was the brainchild of someone sitting uneasily in the Elysée Palace or Number 10, who did not want a successful Arab bloc at the end of the Mediterranean.

So it was all going to plan for the former colonial powers until the 1980s, when dictators like Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi started to get too big for their boots, wanting more firepower and weaponry to inflict the latest atrocity on their huddled masses and threatening the West with all sorts of vengeful actions. The Lockerbie disaster and the invasion of Kuwait were two of those actions. I remember, during the retaking of Kuwait by the West and the Allies' subsequent march into Iraq, they didn't finish the job off. They didn't remove Saddam from power. That may be because American intelligence under Bush Senior knew that Saddam Hussein was still the right man for the job in Iraq. He was holding the various loose pieces of fabric together and keeping a firm lid on any uprisings. This was perhaps the smartest move of the last hundred years. The smartest move of a lot of very reckless ones, but a smart one nonetheless.

The most reckless action of the last thousand years (or more) took place on the watch of America's most undeserving president, George W. Bush, and Britain's messianic Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Under the pretext of weapons of mass destruction, and in the aftermath of the semi-apocalyptic destruction of two towers in New York by an extraordinarily wily and ostentatiously rich Arab psychopath with a bone to pick, these two decided to send in the heavies to "clear up" the Middle East. Now... although a lot of us were fooled by the idea that Saddam was an awful dictator who needed removing before he murdered all the minorities, we did not expect that Bush and Blair would totally fudge the entire change of regime. If they really wanted to bring in democracy, they had to realise what they were letting go of. Decades of relative calm held in place by the threat of brutal retaliation by the leader, the sectarian powder keg that was Mesopotamia was firmly sealed by Saddam Hussein, and his removal was going to open it all up.

Reasons for leaving
And it did. But not only that, it brought out all the other dissatisfied wretches and rejects from every other part of the world. It gave the Jihadis a place to really get their act together and begin the reconquering of the world. The Jihadis of Islamic State are not there to just retake what territory they lost, they are there to humiliate and ultimately bring down the governments of the West. And where better to start than right on their doorsteps? The twisted ideology, self-publicity and money-raising capabilities of these warmongers are nothing short of genial. Recruiting the frustrated, the lonely, the talented oddballs, the pious and the rejected, they tell their targets about the wonderful life they could have in the new Islamic State. They tell about the feeling of superiority these outcasts will have, and the responsibilities they will be given.

Imagine being given the power of life and death over whole towns. Imagine a country like Syria, which despite the brutal dictator, had a pretty good quality of life and a high standard of education, falling apart due to sponsored destabilisation by rich madmen and other regional rivals, and then taken over by the worst kind of warrior. Let us not forget, despite the atrocities carried out by the previous regimes in Iraq, Syria and Libya and all the other dictatorships in the region, if not the world, most people still stayed in the area, even if it was under threat of gassing or midnight removals. Nothing as brutal, savage and inhuman as Islamic State ever happened under the other dictators that caused such mass panic and the fleeing of hundreds of thousands of people to Europe. Imagine, having been a well-to-do middle-class Syrian five years ago, being told your mother has been tortured, your wife abducted, your daughter gang-raped and your son executed. Imagine being the neighbour of that family, as yet unscathed. Wouldn't you pack up and get out of there as quickly as you could? Wouldn't you, right now, be either on a Greek island, at Keleti railway station in Budapest, or scrambling over the Austrian border on your way to a place where you would be given a bed, some food and a new life?

What is worse, we in the West sold the previous incumbents the hardware to be able to carry out these crimes on their people - or at least we sold the hardware to the side our governments supported at the time. Not only the West - Russia and China are most probably in it up to their midriffs too. So when the little guys started fighting back, our governments chose a side and supplied more weapons to them. It was not uncommon for them to change sides, depending what they could get out of it all - fuel, minerals, lucrative contracts - nothing was governed by principles of fairness or justice. The Taliban was, at one time, an ally. There are many reasons why we in the West are now reaping what we sowed, and this is the final repayment of the Karma debt: what we failed to do back then to alleviate their transition to independence and the subsequent brutalities which led to the necessary intervention of the West (again) have led us so far that we have unwittingly created the diabolical cults of Jihadism and Islamist violence. This is the result of our short-termism and complacency.

Blood on our hands
And this has been the case from Eritrea to Erbil, Somalia to San'a, Palestine to Peshawar and Casablanca to Kandahar. We are guilty of great human suffering, even if by proxy, even if 50 years may have passed since we lowered our flags. What we should have done at the end of our empires was to integrate those countries into the world economy by setting up trade talks with international organisations. We should have split the countries up more logically rather than flippantly drawing ridiculous borders after liquid lunches which ended up with names like Winston's Hiccup. We should have let them form their own alliances and not stepped in when things got a little tricky. If we wanted to keep them busy, we should have made it clear from the start that we wanted to be their commercial sponsors and patrons and given them skills and trades. We should not have just let them get angry about everything. And don't get me started on Israel. Good idea in theory, but in practice, we should have been more insistent about Palestine and guarding the inhabitants who were already there. And the playing of the anti-Semitism card, getting easily offended by sometimes very trivial things like the recent palaver over the water showers at Auschwitz every time something does not go their way is wearing very thin.

So all these power-flaunting irritations of varying sizes have morphed into a giant middle finger to the Arab world. And in turn, as we have the stability and the power, we are both their enemy and their role model. Their bully and their refuge. Their bomber and their saviour. It is a strange situation to be in. And right now, having invaded Libya on a whim, having deposed Saddam in a little over a fortnight, having spent years in Afghanistan, having overpowered so many brutal dictators, we get cold feet at the very moment when we actually should do something about it. We are creating haters here in Europe due to our lack of a clear strategy and making it seem like our governments don't care. But there is a clear strategy: Russia is a very powerful player in Assad's Syria. The Russians have a fleet based on the Syrian coast courtesy of Assad. Recent pictures show that area to be totally at ease and peaceful. I am quite sure the West had been waiting for IS to overrun Assad all the way to the coast, therefore forcing Russia out of the picture, before stepping in, but now that looks unlikely. So there have been rumblings in France and Britain about sending in more military firepower. The West's distaste in confronting Russia is at least a sign it has thought about a strategy, even though it seems very likely Assad is now entrenched. The optimistic, dare I say unrealistic, plan to force Assad out through a six-month "transition period" is post-colonialist daydreaming, to say the least.

Misleading facts and figures
This is the fact about the Syrian refugee crisis: there were about 20 million people living in Syria before the troubles. Over half of them, about 12 million, have in some form or another been displaced. The vast majority of those, about 8 million, have fled to safer parts of Syria and about 4 million to neighbouring countries like Lebanon and Jordan. Only 250,000 have tried to get into the EU, but more are coming all the time. There are also great numbers of people coming from Afghanistan, Eritrea and Sub-Saharan Africa. The number of people displaced is an appalling humanitarian catastrophe and a very dark period in our history. The total number of people trying to reach European shores is unknown, but they are coming for a reason.

And here is where we need to take an honest step back: not everyone coming to Europe is doing it because their lives are threatened. Many are coming for economic purposes. There are also a number of rumours that are sweeping conspiracy theorist websites everywhere: that there are lots of Jihadists in amongst them, especially since IS warned they would send hundreds of thousands of "soldiers" to Europe back in February. The theories are not stupid and it is not wrong to be worried about this being the case. It is entirely feasible. Think about it: if the price of transport to Kos, Pantelleria or Sicily costs between one year's salary and five years' salary for one of those refugees, imagine how much a family would have to pay to get across the sea. Who is paying for them? The theory goes that some rich Sheiks are paying the traffickers to send hundreds of thousands of Muslims to Europe to dilute the secular population and flood Europe with Muslims. Again, another plausible theory, but not one I have yet chosen to believe.

Right-wing threat
What seems to be threatening to occur now, unless more people are mobilised to intervene and prevent civil unrest, is the following: the Hungarians and the British, with their fence-building and detaining of refugees at Röszke and Calais for no good reason, are no better than each other, and are giving Europe a bad name amongst those fleeing violence. Intimidation, corralling, delaying the process of registration and integration, these are all making new enemies of Europe. Showing pictures of rubbish strewn on footpaths as if it's something new; people rushing police;  people being tripped up in order to get a shot of an angry Arab; these all add to the fuel of hatred being spewed by Europe's many right-wing leaders, like Nigel Farage, Filip de Winter, Marine Le Pen, and Viktor Orban. If we don't properly welcome these moderate, fairly secular Syrians arriving at our frontiers, we risk embittering already desperate people who just want peace.

Furthermore, we seem to have let the right-wing media and politicians tell us these people are just troublemakers in disguise. I have a different theory. These are very, very different people indeed. I know lots of north Africans and Middle-Eastern people from my time living in Belgium. I also know many from when I was in London. They fall mainly into two categories: very well brought up, courteous, thankful, respectful, fully integrated and well-grounded (often much more so than their autochthonous European counterparts); or frustrated, lonely, badly-integrated, vulnerable, impressionable and looking around for a friend. And it is these people who need saving. It is indeed these people that I can relate to and identify, because a similar thing happened to me, although not in a religious context, I hasten to add. If I had been promised friendship, camaraderie and support, I would have given the same back. If I had been told angry stories of mistreatment and insult, I would maybe have wanted revenge for my new friends. It is a very easy hole to fall into, and understanding that these new arrivals are more like us on a human level than we have been led to believe is one thing that scares the right-wing media. So what we need to do is welcome these people immediately, and fast-track them into work and an autonomous life so that they feel part of us as soon as possible. They are, after all, smartphone-using, mostly well-educated, well-behaved people who, like their counterparts of 70 years ago, are looking to escape persecution.

There is hope
And that seems to be happening. Angela Merkel, at least, has played a significant role in alleviating the impact of so many arrivals by firstly spreading the word that people must be tolerant, helpful and welcoming, causing the refugees to make Germany their top destination. And this is currently the case. It is gratifying to see that the German government is making a real effort and taking the lead in showing respect, trust, and a level of humanity these arrivals have not experienced. Many of these people will never go home again. But once the war is over and the cancer of terrorism has been purged, some may choose to return to their ancestral lands. But first, it is necessary to clear the place up.

How? How do you deal with the embodiment of evil that is Islamic State, and how do you persuade people to return to places that have seen such grotesque acts of barbarity and especially to move back into properties that were usurped by other people in the meantime? There is a precedent for this, and that is the Second World War. All sorts of people who were displaced by it, whether Poles, Jews, Belgians, Russians or Germans, the bombs rained down, the mass executions took place, the persecutions carried on, the atrocities widespread. There are still scars of history in places that will forever keep their air of sadness: Auschwitz, Theresienstadt, parts of Warsaw, Bergen-Belsen, Katyn or Dresden in the Second World War are some of those places. In more recent times we can look to Srebrenica, Kigali or the World Trade Centre. All have been places of the most atrocious of crimes, resulting in the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, and despite the abominations that took place there, people have still returned, even if many wounds have yet to heal.

I do believe that once the Jihadis of Islamic State and other nefarious organisations have been eradicated, people will once again return to their lands. Not all, but many. In the meantime, the West had better start dropping its proclivities of setting up puppet democracies and learn to tolerate the relative safety and calm brought about by strong dictators. It had also better give the various ethnic groups the chance to run their own lands, not least the Kurds. The Turks will protest long and hard, but the Kurds need to be treated as equals. Once all of these things have been achieved, it is time the West grew up and left that area to deal with itself.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

The EU is probably coming to an end and there may be nothing we can do about it

Don't believe me? Take a look around you. Read the papers and watch the news. It's happening. The creaking behemoth that has for years been eating up Europe's nations and swallowing their sovereignty in large chunks is about to burst in a huge bout of indigestion.

The idea is completely barmy to some. I work with EU civil servants all the time, so it is only normal that they will big up their roles and deny any evidence of EU disintegration. They say I'm just a Eurosceptic Brit and enjoy spreading the gloom. But the opposite is true - I am in fact pro-European; I am just anti-Brussels.

The reason for this is that the more Brussels tries to make Europeans and their governments join in their mantra of "ever-closer union", the more they are put off by it. Let us bring the EU into a more condensed setting: if you ask a street's neighbours if they think more close collaboration is necessary, they will say "yes". About what? Well, fighting local crime; putting out each other's rubbish when they're away or have forgotten; feeding their pets when absent; making informal, fair rules on parking; discussing noise levels, building and boundaries, and such like. In a European context, that means fighting international crime and exchanging information (Europol); removing the previous red tape and making it easier to live in another country without needing sworn translations or conversion of qualifications (Maastricht, Pisa and Bologna); bringing better understanding of each other's cultures in an academic setting (Erasmus) and making war an impossibility (Rome and everything thereafter).

What neighbourhood collaboration is most certainly not is knocking down the walls between the houses so everyone can see into your living rooms, kitchens and (heaven forfend) bathrooms and bedrooms. It is not about going on a camping holiday all together and all the awkwardnesses there would be surrounding bodily odours and showering. It is not about allowing neighbours to park on each other's driveways, or rearranging next door's garden so that it becomes the same as yours, or making everyone drive the same car, wear the same clothes, drink the same wine, go to the same shops or listen to the same music. And this cannot be done when new neighbours, who seem to be poorer and less pampered than the others move in, when half reluctantly accept their new arrivals and the others refuse to have anything to do with them. All this will do is create an air of exasperation. It will cause untold damage to neighbourly relations and cause the rapid re-building of walls and a lot of "For Sale" signs to go up in the street.

Having the opportunity to close the door behind you and keep out any unwanted interference in the family unit is not a luxury, it is a right. Being able to choose how you raise your family, what school the kids go to, where you go on holiday, who you spend time with, where you shop, what you wear, and what you eat are your choices and yours alone. Don't be fooled by the need to conform, integrate or do the same as everyone else. It's your life.

The same is of the European Union. There is currently too much integration. The arrival of the Euro was, at the time, a cause for celebration. It relied on the pretence that countries shared the same money even though they didn't share the same budget, pricing arrangements, economic systems, social security systems or even tax harmonisation. that's because, despite the willingness to share currency, nations are really loath to lose more sovereignty to Brussels. And this is where the plan unravels.

If countries are unwilling to open up their books, integrate budgets and amalgamate ministerial portfolios, there is no reason for them to keep up the charade that they really do want ever-loser union. I don't believe they do. And there is a trend running along national lines depending what governments want: the French, when they are unwilling to surrender sovereignty or do something about their overspending (CAP; social security bill) will accuse its detractors of being bad Europeans. This tactic has kept up the illusion that France is a rich nation for many years now. It is not rich; it just has a large territory and population. The Germans will strong-arm the smaller nations into falling into line by finding some other nasty experience to threaten them with. The British keep moaning and sighing from the sidelines and veto or opt out of everything, while hoping to gain support from other Eurosceptic countries, who often make friendly noises until the Germans and French tell them to step in line behind everyone else. The Italians and Spanish, despite being fairly large countries, do what they are told and the Poles want to join in the Franco-German gang and become the third main motor of the European project.

It would be like Mr Johnson at No 24 and Mr Simmonds at No 26 deciding what all the others in the street should be doing and accusing those who don't want to do the same of being bad neighbours. This is not right. Why should the whole street succumb to the systems dreamed up by the Simmondses and Johnsons, when there are so many other neighbours in the street who are happy with their situaion? I'll tell you why: because Messrs Johnson and Simmonds have too many good deals going on.

In national circumstances, it means the government of France is creaming off a lot of cash to subsidise its burgeoning agricultural sector without having to reduce it, therefore keeping the farmers from burning Paris to the ground, because it is too feeble and frightened of its militants to take drastic action and take them on, and Germany has profits for life from having persuaded many other countries to integrate with the Deutsche Mark back in the day, and making everyone sign a contract saying "if you break the economic chain, this automatically becomes the property of Germany." Everyone fell for it.

This is no way to run an international organisation. In fact, this can only lead down one path. The inexorable rise of anti-European parties and anti-austerity movements. And who will be the victims? The ordinary people. We will be cutting off our noses despite our faces. The European project is a force for good. It has helped integrate us for the better and for the common improvement of our status in the world and our standard of living. What it has also done is it has shown just how selfish, opportunistic and avaricious nation states really are, even though they won't tell you. Don't forget, what the EU's Council decides to carry out in Brussels is the brainchildren of the 28 EU leaders, not the Commission - it just carries out the Council's instructions.

Some countries want to play no part in the allocation of asylum seekers; some do not want to make efforts to reduce their national spending; some are unwilling to end their reliance on a particular sector of industry, even if it is anti-competition or even hurting other member states. Some do not want to be at all flexible in the economic plight of the poorer member states. This is all leading to the inevitable withdrawal of countries from various treaties and agreements if they don't get their way.

If I were David Cameron right now, I would feel like a real prize turnip. Having promised a referendum on the UK's membership of the most successful multinational organisation of them all, granting small nations unprecedented standing in the world and prosperity the likes of which had not been foreseen even in the 1960s, I would now find myself in the awful position of being the prime minister who most likely took my country out of it. Nigel Farage and his ragbag collection of buffoons and bigots will tell you that the UK is better out, but they are missing the point. The EU and its institutions are cementing the future for a better society. It is just unfortunate that many nation states, not just the UK, have vested interests that they are unwilling to compromise on. If we could all trust each other, this would not be an issue, but it is.

The other thing David Cameron has failed to realise is he has been visiting various capital cities trying to gather support for his request to get a deal done on UK membership and conditions, but the French and German cabal has pre-empted this by saying it would require treaty change, while at the same time sewing up their own deal that does not require treaty change. This is despicable, underhand, and a brazen attempt to highlight who is in charge in the EU. While Cameron has been trying to negotiate this deal with one pleading face, he has been saying "no" with the other, sterner face. He cannot seriously hope to get something out of it if he, for example, refuses to take in his country's fair share of the current wave of refugees. In all of this, hypocrisy and power games seem to pervade. This is not the right climate to instil trust and confidence in your neighbours.

The simple answer to this is as follows: what Europe needs to do is to consolidate its progress so far. Maybe for ten years to a generation, it needs to put any more major integration projects on ice and take stock of its current situation. People need to be aware of how far it has come and the leaders need to take a step back and look on their work, adjust it where necessary and make the system work. If this means that after a shorter time it becomes clear that a Eurozone social security and tax system needs to be set up, or if it becomes evident that greater flexibility and understanding of nations' concerns need to be addressed, so be it. The European project has indeed reached a crossroads. The only thing is, one of those future directions is also back along the way we have travelled. And nobody wants to go there, do they?

Finally, Europe needs to take the concerns of its non-Eurozone members into account. It needs to address British, Scandinavian and to some extent central European attitudes to the European project, that have always been seen as non-integrationist and anti-European. It is so far from the truth that it hurts. Everyone thinks that the good things the EU has done are to be cherished and kept. But some are unwilling to drop too many barriers because they value their privacy and right to choose. If certain rights were granted these non-Eurozone countries, I am quite sure they would have nothing against the rest carrying on with their ever-closer union.

I am also one of those neighbours who values his privacy. I don't mind inviting people round for drinks or lending them a few quid until pay day, but I will most certainly not let them open my fridge door or help themselves to the contents of my wallet. And this is why the European project may be doomed in any case: if you get too close to someone, there will inevitably be more arguments.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

My Eurovision Top (and Bottom) Fives

Everyone who is obsessed with large events of global significance like the Olympic Games, the World Cup or the Eurovision Song Contest, has lists. It's the one thing that unites us all. We're showing our autistic side, that's all, and quite frankly, WDGAFF what the detractors think - this is our prize cow and we're going to milk it within an inch of its life. The one thing Eurovision nutjobs like me always do is ask others what their top 5 are. But we don't just talk about the songs...

Top five venues?

The one thing Eurovision always does, every year, is try to outdo the year before. To be honest, I think this year's is the best I've ever seen. The stage is magnificent, the background images divine and the sumptuous opening showed it all off. But apart from that?

Copenhagen - Parken Stadium (1993)
Nobody would ever leave this off the list. The biggest Eurovision ever, hosted not in a glorified conference centre or ice hockey hall, but a stadium. It was a lovely sunny evening and the atmosphere created itself.

Millstreet, Ireland - Green Glens Arena (2001)
Think it sounds like a place for a horse show? Yes, you'd be right. The most oddball place for any Eurovision ever, it was a huge tent erected over the show jumping area, and the whole thing could have been an unmitigated catastrophe, but on television, you would never have known.

Vienna - Hofburg Imperial Palace (1967)
Yes, Vienna again. If aliens landed somewhere on the planet I think Vienna is the place they'd think we'd chosen as our capital city. The glorious buildings give it that air, but the cream on the cupcake is Hofburg. Having the Eurovision Song Contest take place there, in the home of music, was the equivalent of having a Star Trek convention in Leonard Nimoy's kitchen.

Copenhagen - B&W Hallerne (2014)
Aaaand Copenhagen once more... But wait until you read why - this was a huge undertaking. A former dock warehouse, it was converted into a 10,000-capacity concert venue with its surrounding area being dubbed "Eurovision Island". We all thought it was barmy. In the end it was a stroke of genius.

Baku - Crystal Hall (2012)
Probably the finest setting for all Eurovisions, the Crystal Hall was a truly remarkable venue and the fact they even lit the building with the colours of the flags while that nation's entry was singing just makes it all the more embarrassing that the UK sent Engelbert Humperdinck that year.

Top five winners?

This is always a contentious one with lots of us Euronuts. My cut-off point is how comfortable I would be if my earphones fell out of my ear on the bus and my fellow passengers were to hear what I was listening to, and all of these pass. I have my own rule: whatever song is in my head when the performances are over I'll vote for. Funnily enough, these below were all in my head, and the songs I hoped would eventually win that evening. I'd say it depends on the day as to who I think was the best of all time, but I can at least rummage up a top 5:

"Molitva" - Marija Šerifović, Serbia (Helsinki, 2007)
The simple choreography, the backing group, the unpretentious staging, the powerful voice and the anthemic build-up made this for me a simple choice for this list. The fact it was the only winner not in English since 1991 is unimportant. I believe the song is important, not only the lyrics, and often a song is made more beautiful if it is sung in the language of its genre. This is a perfect example.

"Love Shine A Light" - Katrina and the Waves, UK (Dublin, 1997)
This is no bias. Even 18 years later, this song's upbeat message containing those two vital winning Eurovision ingredients of hope and friendship, still make this the most deserving winner of the 1990s. I am a great fan of simplicity and unpretentiousness, and once again, this act contained no drop-dead gorgeous people, no strobe lighting, no silly dancing and no idiots losing clothes. Although the green collar was a bit OTT, it stood out a country mile and won by a 70-point landslide.

"Fly On The Wings Of Love" - The Olsen Brothers, Denmark (Stockholm, 2000)
In the grand scheme of things, this song is another triumph for the simple. Just two old guys on their guitars. Like the other two songs I have listed, it's got an unforgettable anthemic nature about it and like the UK song above, is about hope and friendship. On the night, though, nobody thought it had a cat in hell's chance. But it blew everyone else away with a 40-point margin.

"Insieme: 1992" - Toto Cutugno, Italy (Zagreb, 1990)
I have always liked Italian when it is sung. I have often hoped the Italians would do well at Eurovision as they send in quality songs, mainly due to their Sanremo festivals, which turns up some very important and long-lasting quality artists. This time was different. In 1990, this song ticked a lot of boxes: two years before the Maastricht Treaty, Europe was gripped by revolution to the east. The Germanies were reuniting, and the idea of European integration was becoming reality. This song, almost totally in Italian, had importantly three words in English: "Unite Unite Europe". The song is not a classic, but it has the same characteristics as the others above: rousing anthem, simple choreography and a memorable chorus, even if the singer makes some appallingly embarrassing moves, and the brass section of the orchestra plays some excruciatingly kitsch high notes. It won not on quality but on being the right song for the right occasion.

"Fairytale" - Alexander Rybak, Norway (Moscow, 2009)
I had a little difficulty choosing my fifth: Finland's Hard Rock Hallelujah and Ukraine's Wild Dances would round off a top seven, but I chose Fairytale because it fits the theme of the others I have chosen: memorable melody, simple choreography and no cheap gimmicks. It went a step further though: the guy could really play the fiddle. He won by the biggest margin in Eurovision history, 169 points ahead of his nearest rival, Iceland. I voted for it, and so did the rest of Europe.

Bottom five winners?

I would say at this point, whoever wins the Eurovision, despite tactical voting, still needs the support of the rest of the continent, and generally the best song always wins. For me, though, there are years when the voting public has got it terribly wrong. Most of the ones I've chosen come from the period when there was 100% public choice. It's got a lot better since they started jury votes again, but here are some that should never have won:

"Believe" - Dima Bilan, Russia (Belgrade, 2008)
If anyone won because of a gimmick, it was this guy. I hated the song, the mercenary Olympic ice skater, the stupid choreography, Bilan's heavy breathing and the utter fix that year seemed to be. There were such very bad songs that year, that it was actually the least worst of the rest. Remember Greece's "Secret Combination"? Armenia's "Qelé, Qelé"? Ukraine's Shady Lady? Nope. Nor do I - much. It could have been worse had they won. But they were the runners-up in what for me was, musically, the worst Eurovision of all time. The economic crash had just happened and I think most of Europe was glad to give hosting a miss the year after. My favourite of that year was France's Sébastien Tellier with "Divine", a train-crash of an act, that actually made it pretty good.

"Running Scared" - Ell & Nikki, Azerbaijan (Düsseldorf, 2011)
Cheesy, schmaltzy, saccharine, whimsical rubbish of the lowest order. It could have been so much better with a few tweaks of the scoreboard. Italy was second with a storming number called "Follia d'Amore" and Denmark's A Friend In London was not far behind in 5th place. But then again, Jedward was there in the mix, as was Sweden's Eric Saade, with, I believe, the worst rhyme in music history: "Stop, don't say that it's impossible / 'Cause I know it's possible." Who thought of that one? Can you imagine the writers sitting there? "So guys, we need a word that rhymes with 'possible'. Any takers?" So let's not beat ourselves up too much.

"Every Way That I Can" - Sertab Erener, Turkey (Riga, 2003)
This, for me, was the most unjust result of the 21st century. Sertab Erener's copy+paste of a song did nothing to enhance the beauty of music. It was weak, fatuous and lacking in any feeling at all. Totally the opposite end of the spectrum from the two above, which exaggerated emotion. This one was all about the act, which, when levelled against some of the other competitors that year, was never going to fail. The act was also high on the list of t.A.T.u. that year, a fake lesbian duo who arrogantly blustered into the competition claiming they were going to win. In the end they came third, but when I tell you only three points separated the top 3 places, it was close. In fact, if the Irish hadn't had a telephone meltdown and the viewing public had their say, Russia may have won - who knows? Avery injustice should have a counterbalance, and Sertab denying the Russians that year was it. But the greatest injustice of all was who came second. Belgium's Urban Trad, with their atmospheric folk song "Sanomi" should have won, were it not for the Swedish votes in the second-last round of points. They gave eight to Turkey and two to Russia, and none at all to Belgium, meaning the phlegmatic Slovenians stood in the way of Belgium's first win, and I couldn't see them giving points to Belgium. Inevitably, they gave their ten and twelve to Turkey and Russia respectively and Belgium got only 3 from them. Sanomi, for me, is the best song never to win Eurovision. But more on that shortly...

"Rock 'n' Roll Kids" - Paul Harrington & Charlie McGettigan, Ireland (Dublin, 1994)
This was Ireland's most unusual win of all. During their "Reign of Terror" in the 1990s, they tried everything to stop winning. Channel 4's comedy Father Ted played heavily on this in one episode, when the Irish broadcaster decided to rig their national champion and send an atrocious song to Eurovision. It worked in a fictional comedy, but it didn't in the real thing and this duo sang a sad and wistful number about when they were young. If the Olsen Brothers were two old blokes with instruments, these were their anathema. A dirge of a song, but what gave Ireland the victory was not, I believe, that song. It was their interval act, Riverdance. I'm wrong, of course, but imagine if most of the juries had thought the Irish entry was their interval act and voted for that instead...

"Rock Me" - Riva, Yugoslavia (Lausanne, 1989)
For the fifth one, this is truly a fart at a funeral. It requires a build-up before I write about this one, as it is so unbelievably bad that I think typing too much could cause my head to implode in on itself. In 1989, following on from Sandra Kim (Belgium, 1986), Johnny Logan (Ireland, 1987) and Céline Dion (Switzerland, 1988), came the musically inept "Rock Me" by Riva from Yugoslavia. Barely half a decade having passed after the hit film Amadeus, this one seemed like a carbon copy (copy+paste was a new thing in those days) of Falco's Mozart-inspired eponymous theme tune, but without the class or depth of thought. It was just an empty vessel carrying a tune and some vacuous girl in a hideous red-white-black outfit gandering in and out of all the other performers like an unruly kid that's cramping the style of a cheap wedding band. Feel free to watch the video, but be warned: it will stay in your head for a long time afterwards...

Top five non-winners?

Out of all the categories, this is the one I could fill with my top 50. But I won't, as the Semi-Final starts in 5 and a quarter hours, and I want to see it. As you know, if you've been paying attention, Sanomi from Urban Trad was my Best Song Never To Win Eurovision, so these are my top-top five after that one:

"Calm After The Storm" - Common Linnets, Netherlands (Sweden, 2014)
After Sanomi, this is the Next Best Song Never To Win Eurovision. Many people's favourites are formed from their most recent memories, but in this case, I am sure, just like Sanomi, that I will think the same in 20 or 40 years' time. Calm After The Storm was a triumph of simplicity and moodiness that brought the hairs on my arms, neck and chest to a standing position. I had this song in my head two weeks after the competition ended. I was devastated it didn't win, but as Conchita won with her Shirley Bassey-style Rise Like a Phoenix, I could accept second place. It is timeless, unpretentious and soulful. Get out the tissues before you play it.

The next one is actually a person and not a song. Željko Joksimović is an inspirational and deep-thinking songwriter and singer.
Here are two of his entries: 
"Lejla" - Hari Mata Hari, Bosnia and Herzegovina (Athens, 2006)
"Lane Moje" - himself, Serbia & Montenegro (Istanbul, 2004)

Everyone was playing for second in 2006. Lordi's Hard Rock Hallelujah was a shoe-in, and rightly so. It brought metal to the people. But this song was the one I wanted to win if Lordi didn't.
In 2004, B&H came a close second with another haunting melody written by him. Ukraine's Ruslana took it with her Wild Dances, and I have no beef with her of the song - it was so full of energy and activity, I was surprised she was able to hold a note by the end. But Joksimovic epitomises everything good about folk, and like Goran Bregovic, he doesn't compromise on making music buried deeply in the soil of his homelands.

Balkan music is fabulous. It is very technical, with its own character and often-unusual number of beats per bar, and it saddens me when people talk about block voting at the Eurovision. I have often voted for songs from this neck of the woods, and most certainly for these two. Listen to the songs, feel the melancholy energy and stop knocking it!
AND HERE (Lane Moje)

"Dancing Lasha Tumbai" - Verka Serduchka, Ukraine (Helsinki, 2007)
Verka Serduchka was a Teletubby fairy in tinfoil and dark glasses who sang in several languages. A roly-poly, camper than camp phenomenon in silver, he/she souped up another traditional melody and made it into sublime Ukrainian turbofolk. I loved it and still do. The controversial lyrics seemed to say "I want to see / Russia goodbye", but they were given the benefit of the doubt on the night.

"Et S'il Fallait Le Faire" - Patricia Kaas, France (Moscow, 2009)
I have often voted for France at Eurovision, and this was the year the larger Western European countries put up a fight to wrest the competition away from the Scandinavians and Easterners. The UK sent Jade Ewen, with her Lloyd Webber power ballad "It's My Time", but France sent this terrific number. I've seen Patricia Kaas in concert, incidentally, also in Moscow, and she certainly puts on a show. This one is a typical chanson à la française and deserved a much, much higher position than 8th, but not bad, considering she sang third, usually a very bad place in the running order, when people at home are still getting their dinner plates washed and putting on the coffee. Still, I love this song, and it deserved better.

"No No Never" - Texas Lightning, Germany (Athens, 2006)
In 2006, I still lived in Belgium. A friend of mine took me in his car to his village near Berlin (Brussels outskirts-Berlin outskirts in 6 hours, including a stop for dinner - not so much driving fast, as flying low). The next day he took his family and me to the supermarket and there was this up-tempo country number playing in the building. I heard it several more times that weekend, and it really made me stop what I was doing and listen. When I enquired about it, they told me it was Germany's entry for Eurovision that year. I liked it a lot, but in the period of time when the music really did die, I gave it not a cat in hell's chance. Germany was later that year going to host the World Cup and this was a kind of pre-tournament theme. I still hear it played on the radio 9 years later, and that's the sign of a good song - no matter where it comes in the Eurovision, if it's good, it'll survive long after they've put the glitter and sequins away.

Top five hosts?

There is only one: 
Petra Mede!


I rest my case :-)

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Why the electoral system in Britain is broken and how to fix it

In the beginning, the Labour Party went barking mad. Then the Conservatives got sleazy. One party in power alone, and the dangerous ideology that it implements, has caused untold damage to the nation, and now many people are reluctant to allow either of them to govern alone. Where do we go next?

The Labour Party of the sixties and seventies was full of paranoid militants and fist-pumping demagogues that were able, at the drop of a foreman's hat, to hold the country to ransom with one-out-all-out strikes and hard-cheese speeches if they didn't get their way. People saw through it all and Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party won by a thumping landslide. Even my left-leaning father voted Tory in 1979. Due to their utter profligacy, Labour had left the country in a serious financial crisis. They were also being held to ransom by firebrand union members who had seen to it that the electric regularly went off and the shops weren't fully supplied if they didn't get their way. With Labour unelectable, the Tories just ran roughshod over those they could bully and cajole (the unions, Northerners, Scots and the poor among others) and alienated whole swaths of the electorate that they didn't care about. Sometimes this was for the good of the nation (hence the swift but ruthless reduction in the national debt) but often the upshot was the sale of another government enterprise for a fraction of its asking price to a friend of a friend of the minister responsible, who also got a cut somewhere along the line.

The swivel-eyed lunacy of the left kept them out of power for 18 years, until the back-stabbing sleaze of the Major administration made Labour understand that by rebranding itself, it could win once more. Tony Blair realised socialism was a dirty word, but people wanted to throw out the Tories, and they voted for New Labour in their droves. Sworn capitalists, bankers, even right-leaning newspapers gave their blessing to the new set-up. The country went into a deep euphoric trance brought on by spin doctors' magic touches and Tony Blair's messianic speeches, which made the nation realise that at last they had a leader they could say was punching above the country's weight abroad and redressing the balance at home. The trance was so deep, Blair even got re-elected despite a highly unpopular war in the Middle East.



What we didn't realise, on that day when Blair gave up Number 10 saying, "it is over, goodbye," was that he had handed over the keys to the nation to Gordon Brown on the eve of a financial meltdown and a global recession that would have far-reaching consequences for some time to come, probably a generation. It didn't have to be like that. Other countries, like Canada, Germany and Australia, avoided it. He was, quite frankly, spending his way into people's affection. Buying popularity. The most narcissistic and deluded Prime Minister of a Western democracy there has ever been decided to bail out when the money dried up. Nice.

And in stepped Gordon Brown, the last Prime Minister of a one-party government we will have for a very long time. It wasn't his fault. This was Blair's ultimate revenge for his great rival: leave him to pick up the pieces; let him take the hit. And so he did. Officially voted the single-worst PM in living memory (after Callaghan and Heath that's quite some doing), Brown made sure Labour was to lose the 2010 election by being indecisive, dithering and looking gloomy even when he was smiling. He had no real policies, just improvised "ideas" from the many think tanks New Labour employed at the taxpayer's expense.

And finally in May 2010 the electorate decided there was another way. Out went old confrontational politics, in came consensual politics. The Con-LibDem coalition that formed held together pretty well for the full 5 years, and I think, according to the polls, David Cameron and his two-party government didn't do badly, getting the UK out of some pretty tricky situations. But during the last 5 years, several things happened that have transformed the landscape of UK politics forever:

a. the Scottish referendum mobilised a whole nation, and despite the failure to secure their own nation state, the SNP is poised to win nearly all the seats in Scotland. Labour made themselves toxic in the country by siding with the hated Tories in the referendum debate. I fail to grasp why the Scots should think this, because it's only on this one opinion, which was demonstrated by all the parties except the Greens. I'm sure Labour and the Tories think trees are green and the sun is bright: it doesn't mean you have to hate one party because they agree with your enemy.

b. This has caused other parties to seize their moment. Plaid Cymru in Wales, the Greens in England and UKIP have cajoled their way into mainstream politics to such an extent, that they found themselves sharing a stage with the Big Three (well, the Big Two and the little coalition partner) during the recent leaders' debates. The smaller parties proved themselves worthy of being there too. To such an extent, in fact, that in some polls even the Greens are ahead of the Lib Dems.

c. Labour and the Lib Dems have lost credibility - the former due to Scotland and the last time they were in power, the latter over broken promises to cancel tuition fees. This has let the others in. The majority of party swingers are Lib Dems to the Tories or UKIP and Labour voters to the SNP, Plaid Cymru or UKIP.

The problem now is that the parties and their leaders really don't have a clue how to operate in these new conditions. Miliband and Cameron are refusing to talk about the deals they would do with any coalition partners; Miliband has said emphatically that he would rather the Tories got back in than be part of an SNP-Labour coalition in any shape or form. How many of us really believe that? He was stupid to say it, because he will be held accountable after Thursday, if the mathematics mean it is the only option. Cameron is tight-lipped about his party's future, just like Miliband, and dodges any question about coalition. These two are the living embodiment of a country experiencing the death throes of two-party politics. People's allegiances have changed, much like their shopping habits. No longer do we go to the same shop for the product we want; we look around for a better deal, and at the moment, we think the better deal is a combination of parties, to keep checks on the bigger ones.

What is likely to happen after 7th May is anyone's guess, but I would hope that whoever is there will be grown-up enough to fix the electoral system. These are two scenarios:

1. All parties' leaders choose their brightest minds who are to remain impartial and non-partisan, to discuss how to implement a better and more representative chamber, maybe where you get the same percentage of MPs as the electorate voted for you. It is ludicrous that the Greens, if they get 7% of the votes, might still only get one MP.

Problem: although the Lib Dems, UKIP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens would benefit from this, the SNP, Tories and Labour, crucially the three biggest parties, would not. A fudge would most certainly happen that would please nobody and further alienate an already tetchy electorate.

2. I would favour keeping the constituencies but having a two-round election, where the two candidates in a constituency with the most votes would go through to a second round the week after, thus guaranteeing MPs garnered more than 50% of the votes in their chosen constituencies, but keeping them on their very best behaviour as they may very well not make it to (or through) the second round. This way, we keep the tried-and-tested constituency set-up, which assures MPs remain attached to their electorate, and at the same time ward off that most undemocratic and elitist list system favoured by some countries that should know better. Although proportional representation assures correct apportioning of seats, it distances party grandees from their voters as they know they're top of the lists and thus don't need to do any campaigning at all. They can just hire some party stooges to hand out balloons to passers-by at supermarket car parks. So I would be loath to unleash such a badly thought-out system on such an engaged and active electorate.

Problem: I can already see most politicians being fervent opponents, as this system means their electorate, instead of voting for whom they want, would possibly vote for the other candidate in a sort of "anyone but that lot" exercise. Tactical voting on a whole new level. However, if an incumbent MP has done a good job, most people would put party politics aside and vote with their heads. I know Tory supporters who vote for their current Lib Dem MP because he's been very good for their town.

Considering the looming hung parliament and the unfathomable mathematical hangover it is likely to create, it would not surprise me if the Tories and Labour went into some kind of German-style Grand Coalition just to keep their two wannabe sister parties, UKIP and the SNP respectively, out of government. I doubt it, but it is an interesting scenario. Could you imagine the stunned looks on the faces of the ruling coalition backbenchers, when some wealthy, landed Eton/Oxbridge alumnus with no chin and an accent that could cut glass is reluctantly siding with a tieless, comprehensive school-leaver wielding a thick regional brogue and bus driving and a stint at a supermarket checkout featuring heavily on his CV? Angus Robertson of the SNP would be the Leader of the Opposition. It wouldn't last long... but long enough to cause Scotland to chip itself off. Who outside Scotland remembers The Vow any longer?

Lastly, if big-party politicians want any credibility, they need to stop treating the electorate as idiots. If they are to do deals with other parties, they need to say so, so that the electorate can make up its mind better. This whole campaign has been about nothing but ignoring the vast elephant in the room that is the next coalition. I, for one, am not scared of the SNP; far from it. Considering the efficiency and straighforwardness of the Scottish government, I think the Westminster parties are scared the SNP will come in and sweep up too many of the little comforts the established parties took for granted. Complacency has no place in British politics any more, and I think a dose of SNP in government will do the country good. Leave the SNP out, and they risk Scotland breaking off altogether.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Eurovision Song Contest 2015: it's a very sad year

It seems like nobody wants a party this year. Or at least very few. With the Middle East in its most parlous state ever, Western Africa simmering, Eastern Africa failing to make any progress in stopping the rise of extremism, poverty and destitution on the rise everywhere, and rich European countries (who should know better) acting selfishly over a few lost Shekels in the Aegean Sea, it is no wonder this year's Eurovision Song Contest has a melancholy air about it.

There are a lot of real dirges this year and a lot of awfully miserable lyrics:

This offering from Hungary's Boggie ("Wars for Nothing") sums it up:

"Do you know how many innocents
Are hiding from punishment
For crimes they’d never commit?
All alone, all alone"

I would, however, suggest that the song itself is a very good one. 

Unlike Armenia's, whose lyrics seem to have been hastily thrown together by one of those online rhyme generators:

"We find so many ways fooling our heart
Playing too many games trying to hide
When you follow a dream, surrender the sorrow inside 
Face every shadow you denied

Feels like so many times life was unfair
Will you run and forget all the despair? 
If it’s breaking you down, remember the power inside
Face every shadow you denied"

There are some diamonds in the rough, for example France, whose chanteuse Lisa Angell offers peace, hope, courage and (that old French cliché) solidarity to her listeners when she sings about her village that had been destroyed by war and that she is back to rebuild it. We all need to have dreams - good luck with that...

It's going to be three very long evenings in May, and I have decided not to hold a Eurovision party this year. So let's check the potential winners at the bookmakers:

  • Sweden is about 6-4, even though the song itself, for me, falls very short.
  • Italy, at 4-1, had come with a powerful performance by three tenors and the song sticks in the head, although opera tends not to do so well at Eurovision.
  • Estonia are 5-1 third favourites, goodness knows why, it's a mess.

There are some worth mentioning:

Latvia's singer has a very special voice and the song has some very unique backbeats.
Lithuania, the only Baltic country never to have won, has a happy melody and will do well, even with the kissing gimmick in the middle of the song. A dark horse.
Austria, Poland, Ireland and Belarus all go for pianos in one way or another, as do several other countries.
Finland has sent some men with learning difficulties with another hard rock number, which will garner a lot of votes.
Cyprus has taken a leaf out of the cute shy guy book and sent a pleasant ditty.


The smart money should go on:

Australia at 9-1 - the song is strong, and it's their only attempt at it so they're liable to have an incredible act. At this stage, I think it will place high, but it won't win. I may change my mind on the night.

Denmark at 100-1 - it stands head-and-shoulders above the rest as an anthemic number that won't go out of your head, and is by a long way the best offering from the Nordic Eurovision powerhouses. It's got everything going for it - cute boy singer, no gimmicks and a memorable melody. I think I'm going to vote for this one.

The UK at 40-1 - quirky updated Charleston number with a feelgood beat and some humour attached. Some Louis Armstrong scatting in the middle is the only change in what is a pleasant melody but never really takes off.

The Netherlands at 66-1 - as usual, something different from them, and Trijntje Oosterhuis hits out a song that doesn't make you want to switch over to the news. Probably won't win, but is the best of the ballads.

Belgium at 33-1 - this young man will have the housewives and gay men purring. His video shows water dripping down his face, and I'm sure that's how most people will want to watch him as he sings "we're gonna rrrra ba ba tonight". If the staging is right (and Belgium is notoriously awful at it, although Wallonia less so than Flanders), he'll be sitting pretty in the top half of the final table.

Forgettable songs are aplenty though: Russia seems to have given up and is sending another copy/paste china doll; Greece really doesn't want to host it next year, but it feels left out without an entry; Switzerland is so desperate for votes, it has sent an off-the-shelf number that will appeal to the mediocrity lovers east of the Balkans; Armenia, FYROM, Georgia, Spain, Slovenia, Serbia, Czech Republic are all forgettable. But not as forgettable as everyone else I've not mentioned.

So here are my predictions for the winning song this year:

  • The winning song will have at least one man singing.
  • It will be a song that does not mention the current issues: an escape from the world's troubles.
  • It will be close.

To check out all this year's contestants and their songs, visit the Eurovision website.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Is the West endangered by Russia? No. By an ineffective Germany? Yes.

In recent weeks, there have been murmurs of Russian expansion into Western Europe, both in military terms and economic terms. I for one don't buy the theory that they are preparing for a wholesale takeover of the continent, or even a partial one; we should just keep them at arm's length, get on with trade and leave it at that. I fear Germany and its dismissive inactivity in areas of security and territorial integrity, combined with its grip on Eurozone austerity much, much more.

I live in Germany, a country that looks east and west in equal measures. Because of its self-instilled role as benign regional superpower, it had bestowed on itself a mainly symbolic role in diplomatic affairs. This troubles me, because I see this policy as breathtakingly hypocritical. Germany is a country with a recent history of washing its hands of highly-charged political and economic upheaval, not throwing enough energy into the fight against the international threats of terrorism, disease, poverty, hunger, or saving the planet, and seems to be happy enough to let the poorest EU member states drown in the waters of its own enforced austerity measures. Germany is getting rich off the backs of others' misery. At the same time, despite jittery Poles, nervous Balts and baffled Swedes, all who have been recent victims to Russia's mind games, Germany seems to want to carry on playing the old appeasement tune, as if in some sarcastic way to say "you emasculated us in 1945, now you'll see what the consequences are!" At this time, sitting on the fence is the most alarming thing to be doing. It is making countries who have had a peaceful recent history get second thoughts on their alignments and allegiances.

Poland and the Baltic States have had a long and troubled relationship with Russia, and no other countries are better experienced in trying to second-guess Russia's next moves. They are justified in being worried about the future and believing they need to start preparing for a Russian onslaught. This is not necessarily because they think it will happen - it is because they do not trust the bigger powers, especially Germany, to defend them if necessary. I for one believe that Russia will stay away from Poland, although the Baltic States I am not sure. But we should encourage those four countries nonetheless to increase their military spending. We should also be helping them by bolstering the number of NATO troops in the area even further. This is however not happening. The West is running out of military personnel running around putting out little fires in other parts of the world, like the Middle East and East Africa. What it should be doing is watching its own back.

Russia is loving every minute of this - watching its former underlings criticising the senior NATO members for not providing enough reassurance that they will honour the NATO promise to come to the aid of any of its members. And this is the fundamental reason why we need not fear a Russian invasion: Russia has always believed politics to be like chess - you win the game not by a full-on attack, but by tricking your opponents and making them paranoid about you. Chess is war by proxy. You manoeuvre your pieces in a way that makes the opponent fear and respect you. But it is not about territory, war or invasion. Russia wants NATO and the EU to implode by itself and so it is sowing the seeds of doubt. And at the moment it is winning very comfortably.

The Poles and the Baltic States should rightly worry about the future, and prepare for the worst just in case, but the US and especially Germany should hang their heads in shame at the ambiguous and complacent way they are treating those countries. In the end, Realpolitik may win the day, as it should, where Russia and Europe co-exist and rely on each other for trade, but we should not allow Germany and Russia to ruin us by doing nothing to defuse the situation.

Germany needs to man up, start throwing some of its weight around and act like the geopolitical power it is. 1945 is no longer an excuse; it needs to prove itself militarily. Herein lies the problem - after such a protracted period of demilitarisation, Germany is now full of conscientious objectors: people who are against war whatever the reason. How can any nation justify that in this day and age? We should all strive to avoid war, but sometimes it is the only option. There is no other way to defeat the barbaric 12th-century mob of mercenaries that calls itself the Islamic State. Al-Shabab and the like neither. At the same time, we should not seek war with Russia, Iran or any state where diplomacy would be more appropriate, but we should encourage the defence of all of our borders, no matter what the threat, and with nobody in particular in mind. Germany has shirked its responsibilities in all these areas, and continues to lord it over the Eurozone, enforcing its draconian and remorseless policies of austerity on countries whose governments have become more or less de facto puppet states of Brussels and Berlin.

This is the type of country that goes about its business with nothing in its conscience except saving its own bacon by cuddling up to Russia and China, whilst at the same time looking like the Good European. Germany's ability to persuade countries from Finland to Portugal and Greece to Ireland dance to its tune unquestioningly but with a modicum of fear and reverence, is testament to its stranglehold on European affairs. Countries like the Czech Republic, Denmark and the UK, which have a tradition of being slightly more aloof in the European context, are often isolated to the point of humiliation, the UK often being the last one standing. These are all trade-offs, you see, and the UK doesn't often give in to that, even if others do.

However, I think our feckless and thumb-twiddling politicians need to start acting a bit more streetwise. At the moment, they look like a group of bumbling and out-of-touch buffoons not dissimilar to the two hapless detectives in the ever-relevant Tintin comic strips. If I were a member of the EU Council of Ministers, no matter which country I was representing, I would be trying to persuade or even embarrass Germany into changing its stance of selfish inaction on many fronts, the UK to stop listening to the oil lobby about its objection to creating more wind farms, and also to stop reducing the size of its military, and the rest of Europe to start getting a lot quicker in its response to everything. It is so slow - it often meets and talks about matters that may have happened a week or more earlier and the world has moved on by then.

Russia though is not off the hook. Crimea seems a long way off, and the east of Ukraine has dropped off the newsreels. But it does not mean it is over - far from it. Right now, the people of that region don't know what the world is doing to them. It could be that through Europe's own policy of letting Germany actively do nothing (yes, you can actively do nothing!) we are letting the people of Ukraine down. Who is to say that the same would not happen to Poland or the Baltic countries, if such a scenario were to happen there? And this is where the UK and France come in - if Germany, having its hands firmly squeezed by Moscow due to its patronage of a lot of Russian trade, is reducing talks between Russia and Ukraine to "kiss and make up", what does that tell us about its leadership? As long as its economy is going along nicely, there's food on the table for everyone, its austerity measures kicking in everywhere except in Germany itself, what does it care? It has never acted in the interests of the whole, only its own.

According to a recent opinion poll, Germany is the most positively-viewed country in the world. Within 5 years, I think people will see that going down. It is starting to look a lot like Europe in the 20th century, as Germany is adopting a similar air of careless disregard for Poland, but this time as its so-called ally, not its master. If the EU is to survive Putin's mind games, Germany needs to stop relying on the UK and France as the EU's military wing, and allay the fears of Poland and the Baltic States by more than just words. Angela Merkel's dismissal of other nations' concerns, from protection of Polish and Baltic territorial integrity, through British repatriation of powers from Brussels, to Spanish and Greek austerity, could cause the EU to collapse. It is time we either started to take some of the responsibility away from Germany whether it likes it or not, or made it realise it is doing great harm to everyone else through its own lazy and two-faced policies.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Scotland gets to decide who will I be in the morning.

What does it mean to be British? It is an all-encompassing term for a person or thing having ties to, or identifying themselves with, the United Kingdom and its islands and dependencies. It is a very versatile and inclusive name for people who live or were born there. It is another layer of identity lying under that of European, Asian, African, etc. and above English, Welsh, Scottish. But it is more than that - it is possible to be Australian and British, Jamaican and British, Chinese and British, or Eritrean and British, It is a very important part of many people's identity. Including mine. In fact, I don't have a third layer, I have only two: European and British. I do not see myself as English, even though I was born in London; I do not class myself as Polish, despite my surname; I do not see myself as German or Belgian despite my ties to them. I am British first and European second. What will I be if a very important part of my country decides to break away?

As I write these lines, the polls have been closed for 50 minutes. My identity is in the hands of fewer than 5 million people.

I have been trying very hard to understand why over 40% of Scottish people would like to separate from the rest and become foreigners on their own island. And what I have noticed is that many don't want to, but they feel they have to, either because their political views are not being recognised by the British government based in London, or because they feel they are not being listened to, or because they feel disenfranchised by them. There has become a certain amount of mistrust arising from this, and people feel the government in London is not representative of their views.

The Conservative Party is the main bête noire here. Many Scots feel that they often get governments in London that they didn't vote for. What they fail to remember is that, if you look at the European Parliament elections, the whole of the United Kingdom is not represented in the largest bloc of parties, as the European People's Party does not have a British participant: the Conservative Party is in the ECR bloc. At least in the British elections, all parties appear on ballot papers up and down the country, and if people don't want to vote for them, or have them as their government, it doesn't mean they should just leave - that is like selling your car because your road is being temporarily closed for roadworks.

Being disenfranchised is a far better reason, but it is a UK-wide thing. Politics in these times is very boring, full of glorified civil servants rather than visionaries. I think this is caused to some extent by the EU - all the major decisions take place there and so politicians back in their home countries sit playing with their stationery and writing memos to each other about dinner appointments. They are just there to do the bidding of faceless bureaucrats in offices far away. The one thing that needs to happen is a re-engagement of people in the political process. The referendum has certainly done that, and I hope, no I pray, that the political leaders of all colours grasp this moment whatever the result, to start a national debate in all areas, that we head towards a much more consultative political process.

I have always thought power should be more evenly distributed throughout the United Kingdom, and now there is a real possibility of this happening. Politicians can, however, take a good idea and fudge it out of reality. I would be very disappointed if that were to happen, and I truly hope they take everyone's views into account, not just narrow party politics, when they come to the rebuilding of this great country. If the Scottish should vote for independence, I hope London's representatives do not get dazzled by Alex Salmond's silver tongue and hard bargaining. I admire his wily competence but I have found his manipulation of the facts and figures and his really aggressive dismissal of the UK government ("Westminster government") have made me feel very uncomfortable. He said that a vote for the UK was a vote for closed-mindedness and nothing new, and a vote for independence was a vote for a bright new future, without really saying how. I found his aggressive tactics of persuasion very annoying and unhelpful.

Back to the point that concerns me most: I don't want to be from "South Britain", or England - I am British, and I will never feel the same again if that is taken away from me. The United Kingdom has a much bigger reason for staying together than other former breakaway countries like the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, etc., in that the countries that make up the United Kingdom have been together for at least 307 years. The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia are really late 19th-early 20th century concepts, whereas the UK is a work in progress and has been for centuries, at one time forging the largest empire the world has ever seen.

Someone today (a German) said, "I hear Scotland is voting today whether it wants to belong to England any more" - which made me furious. Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England are nations that belong to the United Kingdom, and that is how it has always been. My country, despite the rise of UKIP, and despite the clamour for a reduction in immigration and benefits to foreigners, is still the country of most opportunity in Europe. It is still a very welcoming place, if you come to it with a smile on your face and a willingness to be useful. It is still a very colour-blind nation, and long may it stay so.

Finally, I am, despite the predicament we are in this evening, very proud of my country for the adult way it has gone about this vote. There have been some very inspirational moments, like the BBC debate with just 16 and 17-year-olds, and the party atmosphere created in the land, no matter who you voted for, showing just how civilised the whole process has been. It is now 3 hours since polls closed, and the calmness and good humour I see on the TV as the votes are being counted is a credit to the people of Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole.

I don't intend going to bed until I know the result.