Archive for the ‘European Union’ category

The French Message

April 24, 2017

Yesterday France held the first step in electing its next President. In the French system all candidates run in round 1 and if one candidate receives more that 50% of the votes, that person becomes President. If not there is a round 2 between the two top finishers. The results were: the top finisher Emmanuel Macron, about 24% and Marine Le Pen, about 21%. Said differently, a centrist, not aligned with either of the two major parties and a far right (formerly fringe) candidate will meet in the run-off.

Macron, is a new comer who has never held a major elected position, garnered more votes than all the other 10 candidates. Early pundit predictions say Macron should win the run-off and become France’s next President. Le Pen, however, has been attempting to steer her far right party back towards the middle and may take advantage of unexpected events over the next month.

So what should Americans take as the message from this election?

For France, jobs and border security were key concerns of the electorate. As in America, jobs are a spotty issue. For those unemployed, it is a big deal while those with jobs don’t see the urgency.

Le Pen cites globalism (France First) as the unemployment problem’s root. For Le Pen the answer is leaving the EU and enacting protectionist measures. Macron, on the other hand, sees the world as global and that France must become more competitive in order to lower unemployment.

Border security is another matter. Le Pen used this term to explicitly call for restriction on Muslims including deportation of French Muslim citizens (two passport holders) under certain situations. Le Pen also paints these mainly North African Muslim immigrants as job takers and social services sponges. Macron is relatively silent on this issue reflecting the majority of French citizens (live and let live) attitudes.

France, population-wise is a bi-modal country with one large, densely populated city (Paris) and all the rest. Paris which most tourist flock to is also the center of banking and business. The rest of France is mainly agrarian and in certain cities home for large factories (like auto and air industries).

France has a strong socialist history featuring today the 35 hour work week and a highly developed set of regulations around work rules (pay, benefits, transfer, lay-offs, and firing). In short, it is easier (and often less costly) for a French company to not hire when demand increases. Consequently, even when times are good, one should expect less hiring in France.  The French social contract is well appreciated by French citizens and proposals to change it present a large challenge.

Blaming the EU misses entirely the point and returning France to the French franc will only acerbate the economic situation (where will investment come from?) and open the door for economic policies convenient to the ruling party but ruinous to the country.

So what are the messages relevant to the US?

  • Muslim baiting is not a sure winner. North Africans and other Muslims have had a difficult time fitting into French society.  They look and act differently than the traditional French population. It is true that unemployment and economic distress are higher amongst these Muslim groups but connecting these residents to the overall French malaise is not self evident. (Hmmm, do you think undocumented US residents from Mexico have anything to do with the employment rate in the coal industry?)
  • Jobs is a complicated subject. The idea that closing borders will increase employment is a tough sell (what about exports or reprisals from other countries?). Proposals to increase specific sectors present risk to other sectors. French citizens realize this. (Hmmm, do you think rhetoric will return jobs to the coal mining industry, or tax cuts for the wealthy will translate into lower unemployment?)
  • Voters lack confidence in their legislators. The rejection of the left and right traditional national parties confirms the lack of confidence that traditional leaders can improve the overall French life. (What do Americans think of a Congress which has voted almost 50 times to repeal Obamacare and cannot agree now on what to replace Obamacare with, even though Republicans have control of both houses of Congress and the Presidency?)

One must be careful to not read too much into the French first round election results. French voters have traditionally been volatile people living amongst general apathy. At this point, the French seem to have acted prudently.

Vive La France.

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Human Rights In A Time Of Popularism

March 13, 2017

Over the past weekend, news headlines featured the reports that Turkey wanted to send diplomates into the Netherlands in order to campaign before Turkish residents living in the Netherlands. The diplomates purpose was said to be aimed at gaining votes for a change in the Turkish Constitution which would increase current Turkey President Erdogan’s power. By US standards, this request seems off base and should be denied. Hmmm.

American’s gut reaction, however, is based more on our sense of isolationism, that is the American public square is off limits to other nations’ political squabbles. Americans do not expect other nations to have an opinion on US politics and for sure, do not want any interference in our internal affairs (for example, the rumored Russian activity in Trump’e election). But what if a foreign country only wish to “spin” their local politics in the US press and attempt to raise favorable sentiments? Who cares?

The Dutch situation, however, is different. The Turkish intervention was aimed at convincing Turkish citizens who were living and working in the Netherlands to vote (absentee) in a Turkish elections. What’s wrong with that?

Popularism is flowering across Europe and in the Netherlands, right leaning politicians are taking every opportunity to remind Dutch citizens that Turkish guest workers are taking Dutch jobs. Post World War II a number of countries, the Netherlands and Germany in particular, invited guest workers from Turkey to come and work. For a complex set of reasons, the guest workers did not assimilate into the greater society. Go along and get along seemed to be the accepted way of life and today there are second and third generation Turkish residents in both Germany and the Netherlands who do not speak their host country’s language. Hmmm.

Popularism, itself, is a bag of many things. Xenophobes, bigots, and religious extremists often live comfortable under this umbrella. Promote discontent, label a minority as the trouble maker, and then promise (without proof) you will fix this mythical problem, and voila, a politician might get elected. Sound familiar?

But in Europe, there is a much more subtle problem under the surface. Turkey wants to become an EU member and gain full entry to the common market. For Turkey this would give their economy a great boost and would enable even larger numbers of Turkish citizens to move freely into other EU countries and compete for jobs. Oh, and by the way, if the Turkish citizens did not find employment right away, they could claim social benefits in their host country. Hmmm.

Most current EU member States have not had much concern when the migrating workers carried Spanish, Italian, Polish or even a Lithuanian passports. A Turkish passport is something else again. Why?

No surprise, most Turks are Muslim.

The Muslim religion presents a different theology, of course, and for religious intolerants, this is sufficient enough. But there’s more.   Muslims bring with them a different sent of customs, including Sharia law, dress codes, and sharply different views on women’s rights (as seen by Europeans).

Most Western people also consider religious freedom to be a core human right. Most modern western people consider woman’s equality and suffrage a human right. So how exactly does one reconcile these two opposing views? How does a country have laws which grant women the right to wear what they wish (within broad standards of decency) and turn an eye the opposite direction when another women is told she must wear a certain religious garb whether she wants to or not?

In times of plenty, a tolerant society would find ways to accommodate Islam. Genital mutilation, stoning, or multiple wives, however, represent a step to far in most tolerant Western societies. While these societies might allow relative free exercise of religious freedom, these practices would be banned.

But, in times of slow growth or decline, the idea of someone from another country coming in a taking work from another citizens is too much to expect. Turkey as an EU/Common Market member has its supporters (those who see gaining access to Turkish customers), but the realities of local country economics when framed in the conflicts of religious customs, it becomes a piece of cake for populists politicians to short circuit any dialog and pitch secular muslims as the same as fundamentalist.

It would be wise not to look down ones nose and say that would not happen in America. Think about the demonization of Mexicans who don’t follow Sharia law, don’t have different rules for women, and dress for the most part indistinguishable from other Americans. And worse, Mexicans are good workers, family oriented, and are church going people. Isn’t that what the idealized American is?

Populist politicians are pickers and choosers. They are also close to rudderless and pick issues which will yield the most votes. And while that might sound great to someone if the issue fits their hot button, one must remember that this populist leader will jump upon a new issue in the future if that serves their purpose better.

Your populist leader may not be your friend for long.  Hmmm.

Can 90 US Senators Be Wrong?

December 28, 2016

CNN ran a bottom of the screen headline “90 US Senators Oppose Change in US Policy Towards Russia”. This is a signifiant number and almost assuredly is greater than the number of US Senators that accept man is playing a role in global climate change. What does it mean and is it significant?

The headline was most probably a shot across President-elect Trump’s bow. CNN did not cajole 90 Senators into taking this public position but the network was delighted to flash it across the screen. Maybe the Trumpster will begin a “tweet” avalanche.

The larger issue relates to why 90 Senators might agree on any policy. US Russian policy dates from the cold war when “containment” was the bi-partisan goal. With the fall of the Soviet Union, rather than adopt a “live and let live” policy versus Communist Russia, US policy switch to a hubris based view that Russia’s end was near. The path to this end was to entice the bordering countries (like Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, etc) to join NATO and the Common Market. The big idea was to enable these countries to thrive economically and demonstrate to Russian people how their communism system was doomed for the trash heap. Then, these experts theorized, Russia would crumble from within.

The experts appear not to have read the Catherine The Great biography by Robert K Messie. This biography reveals the deeply entrenched Russian DNA which is paranoid about threats from abroad. US inspired intrusion into these former “buffer” States set off nationalistic alarm bells. Russian conservatives and Communist hardliners have marshaled the Russian public’s support for saving Mother Russia. Hence we have seen intervention in Georgia, Crimea, and now Syria.

So much for that policy.

Thinking Americans should seriously question any US Russian policy which worries about Communism. If there is not already sufficient evidence that pure Communism does not work (compared to most democratic capitalist systems), then a new US Russian foreign policy crafted to change Russia is day dreaming.

This a long winded way of saying that the Senate would be wise to listen to what President-elect is really thinking about in terms of Russian relations. Assuming instead that the State Department is prima facia correct is a risky bet.

The world has changed. Think about it. There is the West led by the US, there is Russia, there is China, and there are a number of rogue or potential rogue nations, possessing nuclear weapons, and all with ideologies truly foreign to Western thinking. So how can the US follow a foreign policy with a singular view of Russia? How can a US Russian foreign policy not consider China and these rogue nations too?

The world has become too small for a set of specific country oriented foreign policies. There is a need for an overall US policy towards all foreign powers.  This policy must envision US values and what the US would be willing to fight about.

Peaceful coexistence ought to be the base minimum with mutual economic growth as the preferred outcome.

The world is a messy place and President-elect Trump needs to express his views too.

Whether the Trump Administration can put forward a strategic vision or will prefer a series of one-off policies time will tell. Until such time, there is no reason to be critical of Trump given the current out of date US policy.

Brexit, Shmexit, Who Cares?

June 27, 2016

The British vote to withdraw from the European Union came as a shock to many. How could something so sensible (large common market, larger than the US) appear to so many Brits as a curse to be ended. To be sure the EU brought some unpleasant aspect to Britain but the benefits to a country, now a shadow of what it once was, would seem easy for politicians to communicate. Hmmm.

The EU can motor on as if nothing has happened while the unintended consequences descend upon Britain… that is unless other member States loose control to nationalistic elements. It is not a wild and crazy idea that the EU could unravel and return the continent to a group of competing States prone to local skirmishes. One would hope not but 500 years of history do not lie.

Briton’s unwise decision can be traced not to immigrants or Brussel’s eager legislators, but to the mainstream British politicians who have chosen short term expedient solutions to systemic national problems like the loss of mining or manufacturing jobs.  Where has been honest assessments and workable plans to over come?  Instead Britons politicians have tried to distract voters with hollow promises, past soccer victories, and glorification of the King and Queen.

Globalization, like in America, has made so many manufacturing jobs redundant. Any attempt to repatriate these jobs, as opposed to replacing them with higher skill or technology based ones, must fail because of simple economics.

Soon the Brexit supporters will learn the hard way that immigrants were not the problem as well as globalization cannot be turned on or off.

The big question is whether US mainstream politicians can learn this lesson or whether they too will fall victim to convincing voters to vote a certain way, like to Make America Great Again, only to find they have selected an even poorer alternative?

Brussels’ Message

March 23, 2016

Terrorists have performed once more the unthinkable. Suicide bombings were carried out at the Brussels International Airport and at one stop in the Brussels Subway system. Reports list as many as 35 fatalities. Innocent people with no known argument with the attackers. Why do people do this, and what can be done to stop this happening again?

I know Brussels. I never lived in Brussels (unless Sofitel rooms count). I did live nearby in Germany and traveled many times through out Belgium and in particular Brussels for business and for pleasure. By American standards, Brussels and most of Belgium are easy places to visit. Almost everyone speaks english as a second language. The pace of life is very pleasant. Brussels and the Grand Place district are full of tourists, shops, and wonderful places to eat.

The airport is smallish (compared to Amsterdam, Frankfurt, or Charle DeGaulle. It was formerly the home of Sebena Airlines (Belgium National Carrier). Sebena offered some of the poorest customer service in Europe and Belgians never seemed to mind. Maybe that was due to a quirk in the population’s personality. Belgians don’t make trouble for others.

Belgium’s official language is not one but two. Roughly, the north speaks Flemish (Dutch) and the south (Walloons) speak french. Belgium has a split political make up too. National budget expenditures are split roughly 50-50 so if new road is built in the south, then one is also built in the north whether they are needed or not.

The Belgians are outwardly hospitable people. With its central location, Brussels has been selected as the seat of the European Parliament and home for many of the European Commission agencies. Symbolically, Brussels could be seen as the capital of Europe.

Again, why do people do this?

The perpetrators of the recent Paris attacks and the prime suspects in these bombings are Muslims of North African ancestry. One might see this incident as unintended by-product of European colonial days. The civil wars in North Africa generated a lot of refugees, some who held dual citizenship resulted in a lot of North African muslims relocating to Europe. Now their children, a second generation, call Belgium home but have not assimilated very much at all. They stand on the outside while living inside.

What goes on inside their heads is a bit of a mystery. Rationally committing mass murder makes no sense and makes even less sense if it requires someone to lose their own life in the process.  And making this sacrifice based upon the fairy tale that life will be much better in “paradise” is total lunacy. So we must conclude that these acts are not rational ones.

If history is good for anything, it must remind us that these Muslim terrorists do not have an exclusive hold on irrational acts. You can read that just about all other religions, races, and ethnic groups have committed one atrocity after another, on yes, some outside group. Outrageous acts against others is not the exclusive domain of Islam.

My guess is that these Brussels terrorists decided to explode their bombs so that “others” were killed or maimed. “Others” were people whom they did not know. “Others” were everyone not part of their close circle of friends and associates. “Others” were people who did not count.

There remains plenty of future terrorist living in European countries, who live there but are not part of the national social fabric. For them, everyone else looks like “others”. These latent terrorists just sit there waiting for something or someone to turn them loose in order to kill the “others”

Brussels’ message reminds us of the power of assimilation and the dangers that lurk in the hands of those “outsiders”.

The Greek Rathole

July 2, 2015

This weekend the future of Greece as a European country may be established. While the world’s geography will not change, the short sightedness of European Union leaders may drive Greece out of the Euro and subsequently the EU. The reasons for this fate are many, but at the end of the day, the reasons are based in why Europe is such a nice place to visit and why in the past it was always poised to war amongst itself.

European countries are comparatively monolithic, speak their own language, and enjoy all aspects of their heritages.

The modern construction, the European Union, lead by Germany’s economic strength, has insisted upon a number of fundamental changes in the Greek national economy in exchange for further EU economic support. Greece is bankrupt and desperately needs a further infusion of Euros. The problem is that the Greek economy is like a bucket with a hole.  The amount of tax revenues pouring in is less than the Euros than are leaking out through the hole. This picture does not get better without some fundamental changes by the Greek people.

Like many other third world (maybe second and a half is more apt) countries, the Greek wealthy are intelligent, sophisticated, and uninterested in paying taxes. The wealthy have a long history of avoiding tax payments and often justify this attitude by saying the government simply gives the money away and demonstrates little interest in fostering national economic growth.

The Greek Government (conservative or socialist) usually finds in oder to remain in power must placate the masses by generous entitlements such as pensions, early retirements, and bloated employment roles. The pleasant Greek lifestyle is simply not competitive on a European basis and not in the same universe as the global economy. Accordingly, unless the industry is focused upon the tourist, Greece does not compete.

The EU while in name representing all European countries is financed primarily by Germany. Accordingly, German influence wants an austerity approach in exchange for financial help. Austerity means less government workers and reduced pensions. The amount of the decrease would be determined by the amount of new tax revenues Greece raises. Fairly straight forward from the German perspective.

Democratic Governments, however, respond to the populous, even when the populous does not understand the situation it is in. Leaving the Euro and reintroducing the Drachma will allow Greece to inflate its currency and pay its debts with cheaper money. At first this looks attractive.

The problem with this approach is that again without more fundamental restructuring Greece will still be economically uncompetitive. The losers is situations like this are primarily the average person whose savings will evaporate and whose pension will become worth less and less each year. The wealthy will hide their money overseas or in assets somewhat immune to inflation.

Only when life gets so bad that the masses are about to rise up do countries finally make the tough fundamental changes. Fundamental changes, however, are not necessarily confined to the economy. Authoritarianism becomes popular too. And with this type of leadership, anything can happen.

The EU has called Greece’s bluff and in essence said take our offer or leave it. The “leave it” part will lead to Greece’s EU withdrawal and almost assuredly withdrawal from the Euro. I hope Germany has thought what this could cost Europe and that this amount is less than keeping the dialog open and the maybe restructuring the debt in some way.

Hmmm.

Immigration – Take A Breath

May 8, 2015

The Tories won the election UK yesterday. Most pundits had written the conservatives off and at best predicted a minority government. Instead, for yet unexplained reasons, the Conservatives won an outright majority. So what does it mean?

Upfront it means Prime Minister Cameron will get to remain Prime Minister for as many as another 5 years. It also means he will have to fulfill his campaign pledge of letting Britain vote on whether to remain part of the European Union. Hmmm.

It has always made me scratch my head to hear English citizens speak of the UK and Europe, as if they were as distant as the US and China. While it is true Europeans drive on the left side of the road and their native languages are not english, there is a scant 20 or so miles separating England from the Continent. But many English see it differently.

The UK has avoided joining the Euro (the common currency) without any recognized damage to the pound. But being part of the EU has from time to time created great ire amongst the English. (It must be said that the European Parliament must be one of the largest bureaucracies in the world, maybe next to the UN.) The main argument with the EU is, immigration, or more specifically the apparent lack of EU effort in stopping unauthorized immigration into the US from Continental shores.

The EU has a rule which says no boarders can interfere with an EU resident seeking employment in any EU country. So workers from less well off EU countries can simple travel to London and look for work, all while taking advantage of the UK social safety net. That was hard to accept but there is an even bigger issue.

Economic refugees from all over (mainly the Middle East and Africa) are streaming into Southern Europe and then working their way towards the UK. The English Channel stands in their way so large camps have risen on the shores opposite England. Smuggling by any means available, these refugees attempt daily to enter the UK. Once in Britain, the refugees can stay as long as they wish, work if they wish, or just collect welfare.

The Brits don’t like this and by extension don’t like the lax EU.

These refugees in many cases really do not intend to return to the native countries, many of which are torn by war and fighting. For them, the UK represents a salvation of sorts.

The US has an immigration problem too. We have some 12 million undocumented aliens living in the US. The largest group with these 12 million has been Hispanic (mainly Mexican) but there is now an increasing number of Indians and Chinese. The Mexicans are good workers, have strong family values, and are religion centered people much like most Americans. Indian and Chinese immigrants while culturally different also are family centered and achievement oriented. These groups can be very additive to the current American fabric.

Listening to our politicians and some of our labor leaders you would never believe what I have just written. The world is going to end would be their predictions unless we send all these immigrants home.

But think about the problem the UK has and the so called one we have. Hmmm.

Immigration cannot be unlimited and the rate must be controlled in order to assure social order. But someone must have been absent when they were handing out brains to not see the immigration issue facing the US as quite different from that facing the UK.

Both need attention from fair minded and just leaders. For the US comprehensive immigration reform will be a 2016 election issue just as it was for Prime Minister Cameron.