Welcome to the EU, suckers

NOTE: The first version of this post contained a factual error. I’ve corrected it. The Hungarians and Poles did, in fact, successfully negotiate a transition period for their VAT laws.

One of the big items in the Czech papers yesterday was the fact that most restaurants and bars will raise the price of food on May 1, the day of Czech EU accession, as food gets slotted into the higher 22% value-added-tax category as per Brussels’ demand. On Tuesday, the EU rejected a French proposal to keep food in the 5% category.

I am not among those that think harmonized tax regimes are part of an evil socialist plot to radically redistribute wealth. But Jeez, people, could you not have come up with some other way to phase this in?
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Where the River Bends

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the female Iraqui blogger River Bend, but my feeling is that those of you who aren’t would do well to make her acquaintance. Juan Cole describes her in his blogroll as an Iraqi nationalist, but reading the posts she doesn’t seem to be a nationalist in any stronger sense than say Blair and Bush are patriotic, or than Schroeder and Chirac are in the defence of their respective corners (of course this may well be problematic, but it is just to put things in perspective). Iraqi nationalism could also mean Baath, and this isn’t the case here. Indeed what she has to say about the Kurdish question is remarkably similar to what the Spanish PSOE seems to be proposing in connection with the Basque and Catalan ‘problems’ here in Spain. And this is not an idle comparison, since I think if you don’t get your mindset round what the ‘problem’ is in Spain, you are never going to begin to understand what it is in Iraq.

Reading one of her posts earlier this week, I couldn’t help been drawn towards an unfortunate parrallel: that between what is now taking place in Iraq and the topic of one of Scott Marten’s recent posts: the headscarf. Wouldn’t it indeed be ironic if we were about to witness a similar – if diametrically opposed error – being committed in two places at once? Whilst young French girls may be denied the right to religious expression at one end, young Iraqi ones may be denied the right to secularism. at the other And all in the name of democracy. Strange world.
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Living in Denial

No this is not (yet) the title of one of my new pages (although we were looking into living in sin, but unfortunately it’s already taken). No the denial I am referring to is much nearer home for most of us, since it is up there in Brussels. “European Union nations are dragging their heels in their ambitious drive to become the world’s most competitive economy by the end of the decade” or so we are lead to believe from the EU annual survey published by the Commission on Wednesday.

This foolish piece of what the Spanish would call ‘chuleria’ (no easy translation but I suppose you could try vain self-important show-off bragging) – the pledge to overtake the US by 2010 – was adopted at the Lisbon 2000 summit. It was madness in its moment, now it looks just plain ridiculous.
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More Europeans

Say hello to another 1,276,000 inhabitants of the EU in 2003, bringing the total to 380.8 million people on January 1st 2004. Most of them were immigrants, out of the total increase of 3.4 people for every 1000 inhabitants, 2.6 was down to net migration while only 0.8 was accounted for by natural increase (births minus deaths).
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Europe’s love affair with diesel

Latest figures from Automotive Industry Data (AID) show that in 2003 diesel accounted for 44% of the West European car market, up from just over 20% ten years’ ago. In some markets, such as Austria, Belgium and France, diesel penetration is now 60% to 70%, while in Sweden it is under 8% and Greece only 1%. Might this have major implications for global politics?
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European crony capitalism

A post today on The Final Word, a Prague-based email bulletin put out by a local English-language Czech news digest, got me thinking. Titled “PPF spreads its tentacles,” it’s about the secretive Czech corporate conglomerate PPF and how it uses its media holdings to advance its numerous business interests.

It’s long been the Czech Republic’s dirty little secret that it’s one of the bastions of corruption and crony capitalism in the middle of Europe. After basking in the glow of much of the 1990s as the “star pupil” of economic transition, it took a much deserved fall from grace starting in the late ’90s, with much publicized cases like Ron Lauder’s suit against the Czech Republic over TV Nova giving the little nation plenty of bad press. Vaclav Klaus, ex-premier and now the president, has often been complicit in securing the country’s dubious reputation, if not the very nexus of crony capitalism. Today, far-flung provinces of the empire like Estonia and Slovenia appear clean as a whistle compared to the Czech Republic.

This is all pretty old news. But what strikes me today is how this compares to other European countries.
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A change in Parliament

After 25 years in the European Parliament, Iain Paisley has announced that he will not be standing for re-election as an MEP this year.

This means, of course, that the Parliament will be losing one of it’s more colurful characters whose explits included (as Anthony Wells reminded me) being forcefully removed from the chamber by Otto Von Hapsburg after proclaiming the Pope was the Antichrist.

Bedpans and boot-polish

Somewhere down below, Doug Merrill was perceptive enough to notice a remark – easily overlooked but of fundamental importance – by Renate Schmidt, Germany’s Minister for Puppies and Sad-Eyed Children (or something like that). In short, the minister signalled, in a roundabout way, that the end is nigh for conscription to the Bundeswehr. The German Kommentariat is not as quick on the uptake as Doug, but they’ve twigged at last, and this has become a Big Issue. (It is eclipsed somewhat, of course, by the question whether we shall all go to prison for having a Putzfrau come in for a couple of hours a week.)

The quick version is this: Germany’s post-war constitution enshrines the right of conscientious objectors to refuse armed service. And the flower of German youth is keenly attached to this right; huge numbers of young men refuse military service. Instead, they perform civil service, most of them in hospitals and old-age homes, or deputed to care for individual handicapped persons. The minister intimated that care institutions and charitable organisations are going to have look elsewhere for their workers. Without obligatory civil service for COs, a compulsory stint in uniform for the non-shirkers starts to look constitutionally dicey.

In other words, the end of substitute civil service is likely to mean the end of the call-up. Now, that is very interesting. Because if you had asked me at any point during the last ten years or so, I would have said that, if civil service ended, it would be because conscription had been done away with first. What’s more, I would have said that the spectre of an end to civil service would ensure that conscription went on forever.
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Another disaster

On thursday a split European Commission “decided to launch unprecedented legal action against member states over their effective suspension of the euro rules last November.”

“The Commission will now ask the European Court of Justice to rule on a procedure taken by finance ministers last November to avoid disciplinary action being taken against France and Germany for their persistent breaking of the rules underpinning the euro. Brussels believes the procedure was “not appropriate” and has received legal advice confirming this.

The spokesman also confirmed that the Court would be asked to “fast-track” the case, which would mean the issue is resolved in 3 to 6 months rather than one or two years. But it is up to the court to decide whether to grant this.”

Analysis by Andrew Duff MEP

I’ll writing some belated commentary of my own, but meanwhile you can talk about it here.