Department of Unexpected Consequences (Balkan Division)

I don’t usually cite whole articles, but this recent piece over at birn.eu is too good to miss.

After years of vigorously opposing the eastwards expansion of the European Union, extreme-right-wing parties in the European Parliament, EP, ironically stand to benefit hugely from the Romanian and Bulgarian accession…

[A]agreement with nationalist parties from the two newcomers has opened the way for the first parliamentary group representing the hard right to be formed in the EP.

The new caucus… brings together about 20 members of the parliament, known as MEPs, from seven countries. Five will come from Romania, from the ultra-nationalistic and xenophobic Greater Romania Party. And one from Bulgaria’s Ataka party, which mainly campaigns against Bulgaria’s Roma and Turkish minorities.

Why is this happening now? Because the EU Parliament has a rule that a caucus, to be officially recognized, must have at least 19 members from five different countries. Until recently, the far right could only muster 14 members. But the new MEPS will push them over the line.

The other MEPs? Oh, you know. France’s National Front, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, Italy’s National Alliance. Allesandra Mussolini will be in it. The leader will be France’s Bruno Gollnisch, who is currently serving a suspended sentence for Holocaust denial. British readers may recognize Ashley Mote, the noted cricket writer, who was tossed out of UKIP a while back after being indicted for fraud. (Did anything ever come of that?)

The group already has a name: “Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty”. Well, who could possibly disagree with that?
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About that coal in Kosovo

In comments to the post on Kosovo, Alex Harrowell asked the following reasonable question:

“How can you have something that’s both a “mineral resource grab” and an “economic black hole”?”

The short answer: you can, because it’s Kosovo.

Here’s why. There has been no serious investment in those mines since the Yugoslav economy hit the skids in 1986.

A modern coal mine is not a hole in the ground full of guys with picks. It’s a major industrial installation. You have huge drills, borers, grinders, driers, fans, pumps, you name it. A big coal mine uses as much power as a good-sized town. A big modern coal mine uses cutting-edge, state-of-the-art materials technology and software. It’s not guys digging coal any more. It’s guys operating and maintaining big, complicated machines that dig coal. In the United States, the majority of coal miners have four-year college degrees, and need them.
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Eurozone Economy: When Paradigms Collide

When scientific paradigms collide everyone should duck, at least that is the best advice I can offer at the present moment. The provisional German retail sales for January are now in, and they don’t make especially pleasant reading:

European retail sales dropped for the first time in 10 months in January as spending in Germany slumped, adding to signs economic growth is slowing, the Bloomberg purchasing managers index showed…..German retail sales had the biggest drop in two-and-a-half years, with its index declining to 43.9 from 55.2 in December

Now for those who have been following the German economy in recent months none of this should be particularly surprising, since as is reasonably well known Angela Merkel’s government has just upped VAT from 16% to 19% in an attempt to address the ongoing federal deficit problems. And of course, one months data never offer a complete picture. But this decline in retail consumption in Germany forms part of a much longer ongoing weakness in domestic consumption (and here), one which many were arguing had finally come to an end in 2006. Some of us, however, seriously doubted that this was the case, and hence the initial significance of today’s reading. In particular what we may be faced with are changing structural characteristics of economies as median population ages rise. In particular – and following the well-known life cycle pattern of saving and consumption – more elderly economies may have a higher rate of saving and a lower rate of consumption increase than their younger counterparts.

Some more evidence to back this point of view comes from Japan, where today we learn that household spending in December declined for a 12th straight month, dropping 1.9 percent from a year ago. Yet the Japanese economy is not in recession, and output is actually rising. As Bloomberg say:

Japan’s factory production rose to a record and household spending fell, underscoring the central bank’s concern that growth has bypassed consumers and left the economy dependent on exports.

So please note: growth appears to have by-passed consumers, and the economy is ever more dependent on exports. The same goes for Germany, and this is why I talk about paradigm collision, since the neo-classical theory of economic growth – with its core conception of ‘steady state’ growth – was never built to handle median age related changes in economic performance and structural characteristics. Something new is clearly needed.

Over the coming weeks I will undoubtedly have more to say about all this, as we get to see more of the 2007 Eurozone data, but for now let me point you in the direction of Claus Vistesen, who has been patiently toiling away trying to work through a hypothesis which, in terms of the data we are now seeing, certainly seems more in keeping with current economic realities than the view we currently see emanating from the ECB. His arguments on Japan can be found in depth here, and his latest piece on the eurozone is reproduced below the fold.
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Blogrolling

It says something about AFOE charter member and – to use a NASA title – principal investigator Edward Hugh that, when Nosemonkey recently did a roundup of new European blogs, the top one on the list had already been roped in to EdWorld, as a contributor to Demography Matters and Global Economy Matters.

You will be assimilated.

Eurodemocracy and E-democracy

Nosemonkey suggests that the cross-European effort to make data on the CAP’s beneficiaries available might be an example of how a European demos could function. There’s more detail at Martin Stabe’s, and the searchable database is at Farmsubsidy.org.

I’m quite keen on this. Not so much because I’m sympathetic to the whole “lacking a European demos” debate – personally, I think it’s over-schematic and essentially useless – but because it’s an opening for a different kind of debate. Look at national demoses (I invite any classicists on board to correct this backformation) – do you really want another, bigger one? Even at the European national level, it’s a scene of highly formalised, big-media dominated, fact-light jousting. Look at the nearest ones in scale to a putative Euro-democracy: the US, with its sterile two-party dynamic and addiction to campaign funding, China and Russia (nuff said), India, with epic fractionalisation, corruption, and sporadic violence. Urgh.

But something like this, or for that matter MySociety’s various projects in the UK, offers the possibility of a more fact-driven debate, a reduced reliance on political parties, and greater oversight of the grey zone where the EU institutions and nonofficial bodies like the various cross-European business and labour groups and standardisation conferences intersect.

After all, why should (as Andrew Grice of the Independent suggested yesterday) the Liberal Democrats complain that other parties are stealing their ideas and putting them – gasp! – into practice. Only if you insist on the party as a tribe and a vehicle for self-advancement should this matter. A highly anti-liberal view, in my opinion.

Fine Brussels-based blog Kosmopolit is heading in the same direction, with a critique of Ségoléne Royal and referendums.

Brio and Open-Source Hardware

Intellectual property rights in technology. Great, aren’t they? Consider Brio, the middle-class fave range of wooden toys, whose manufacturers have neatly locked out competitors who want to make toys that will go with theirs by using couplings and fasteners that are proprietary and non-standard.

Elsewhere, on the NANOG (North American Network Operators’ Group) list, they discussed the thorny problem of cooling increasingly powerful servers and routers, and arrived at some consensus around using much more water cooling. Paul Vixie argued that in the future, rackmount equipment would have standard connectors for cool water in and warm water out, as it already has standard power connectors, USB ports, and RJ-45 Ethernet ports.

Cool idea! Naturally, there are already racks with water connectors, but inevitably they are proprietary and incompatible. Amusingly, someone pointed out that standard connectors and flexible pipes exist in the beer trade, which is a start. But what does intellectual property actually bring society? I know the standard arguments about the necessity of rewarding invention, but it’s very noticeable that a lot of innovation happens in the open-source world and in what you might call the non-patent space, among academic researchers and the like.

When Bell Labs invented the transistor, they didn’t try to enforce patents on it. Instead they published all their results in peer-reviewed journals and organised technical conferences to spread the knowledge. Perhaps the optimal solution isn’t to look for a total solution, but just to start pushing back the limits of the IP-sphere and see what happens, tolerating any anomalies? Again, seeing that the EU’s misbegotten software patents directive is now dead, this is something we could get started..

This is not how to deal with demography

Demography matters, as Ed constantly points out. It matters so much they’re even talking about it up at Davos, where they’ve invited “the world’s most important bloggers” into the bargain. So, from the AFOE (Europe’s No.1, according to E-Sharp magazine) forward bureau in the Hotel Derby, we’d like to point out that this probably won’t solve Japan’s demographic problems:

“The number of women aged between 15 and 50 is fixed. Because the number of birth-giving machines and devices is fixed, all we can ask for is for them to do their best per head, although it may not be so appropriate to call them machines.”

Ya think? So says Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa.

BTW, if this is Davos it looks a lot like my front room…you see, we at AFOE have a deployable blog-unit in a standard shipping container that contains everything we need to support our mission of pan-European opinion in remote locations. Or something. Ho hum.

Glowing Georgians and Radioactive Russians

No, this is not a Litvinenko post…or at least not primarily. Recently, the Georgian ex-KGB said it had caught a Russian smuggling highly-enriched uranium into Georgia, who was nailed in a sting operation where Georgian agents posed as representatives of an Islamist terrorist group that wanted to buy fissile material. He handed over a sample, claiming to have several kilos back at home in Vladikavkaz, and they put the handcuffs on him. Good work, fellas, you might say, and you’d be right – both the US National Nuclear Security Administration and the Russian Atomic Energy Authority analysed the stuff, and it turned out to be 90 per cent enriched.

On the downside, it turns out that this happened in November, 2005, and he’s been sentenced to eight years in a secret trial. One wonders what kind of a trial, and also why the Georgians took so long to mention it. Being a small state next to Russia with ambitions of NATO and EU membership, and an existing counter-terrorist alliance with the US, you’d think they’d trumpet it from the rooftops. They claim it was in order not to compromise continuing inquiries, which may be true or may not.

Siberian Andy asks, in the light of this, if Russia has lost control of its nuclear weapons. He thinks it’s plausible. I disagree, slightly. Russia is clearly far more stable than it was in the Yeltsin years, what with the restoration of the FSB security state, and nuclear custodianship, command, and control is obviously a priority. Perhaps more importantly, surging oil and commodity prices have made a big difference to the state budget – Putin is in a position to hold a dramatically bigger share of the market for corruption than Yeltsin ever could, and it would make sense to direct it at the academic/industrial nuclear community and the roketchiki who actually look after the things.

But there’s obviously a problem.
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Kosovo: Divided We Stand, United We Fall?

This is the title of a post from Seb Bytyci on his South East Europe Online blog. I reproduce the entire post below the fold.

So the UN seems set to adopt a plan which would allow Kosovo to make a giant step on the road to independence. This is hardly surprising, and frankly I see no other realistic way forward. But obviously not everyone is happy. And some of those who seem not to be happy have considerable ability to make mischief, and not the least among these, the Putin regime in Moscow.

Doug Muir and I have been blogging this week about the Serbian elections (here and here) and perhaps the biggest issue which arises from those elections is just which way Kostunica will fall. A lot depends on this decision, and this UN proposal, coming at precisely this time, may well serve to give him a sharp push in the wrong direction. Call it the law of the inopportune moment. Offering a share of power to the Radicals would constitute a major problem for Serbia, and in the medium term for the whole EU. But rising nationalist feelings, especially when they come on the back of desperation, are often hard to contain.

I would say that the biggest strategic danger is that the Serbs allow themselves to become a proxy for the ambitions, and mischief-making abilities, of Russian nationalism in the region.

This week a lot of people are gathered in Davos, and on the agenda somewhere is the topic of demography. Amongst those participating is demographer Nicholas Eberstadt who has repeatedly drawn our attention to the real and present danger constituted by a Russia which, on the back of low birth rates and reduced life expectancy, faces imminent demographic meltdown.

Only this week the Eastern Europe correspondent at The Economist Edward Lucas had this to say (in the Economist latest Europe.View column.

‘Forget, for a moment, the headline stories from central and eastern Europe―the pipeline politics, the corruption scandals, the treasonous tycoons. The big story in the ex-communist world is people. Too few are being born. Too many are dying. And tens of millions have changed country.’

This is the new reality of Eastern Europe, and it is one we would do well not to lose from sight, for if we do we may find ourselves getting bogged down in the detail of things whilst missing the big picture which is unfolding before our very eyes. (Claus Vistesen has an in-depth review of the world bank report to which Edward Lucas refers here).

Seb is reasonably optimistic, and understandably so given all that the Kosovars have gone through, but we should never forget the darker side of things, which lies out there in wait of us, if it can catch us unawares. In the context of what is happening right now in Russia and Serbia I would say that vigilance was the watchword.
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Hoisted from Comments: Not Happening

Remarking on Edward’s post, one commenter writes, “Unlike Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia etc, Croatia is well on its way to the EU.”

Unfortunately for Zagreb, the EU is not on its way to Croatia. At least not with any great speed. I had pegged Croatia to be in by the 2009 elections to the European Parliament. That is not going to happen.
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