Potatoes are Root Vegetables

Though not a square-root vegetable, at least not a square-root or death vegetable when you get down to it at the Brussels bargaining table.

The Kaczynski twins are providing some sparks in the run-up to this summit, and they are every bit as ham-handed as noted below and by Henry over here. One level of the game is to try to get Poland permanently into the EU big leagues with a prominent display of obstreporousness. This has a long, if not entirely honorable, history within the European institutions. See chair, empty and handbag, Thatcher’s. But what these episodes cost France and the UK in long-term ill will may well have been greater than the headline gains they resulted in. At any rate, the current potato casserole shows that Polish politicians have mastered the EU skills of brinksmanship, populist posturing and feather ruffling. Whether they have mastered the more productive arts is yet to be seen.

On the other hand, there really isn’t much time left to get an unconstitution (my word for the next EU treaty) rolling. Elections to Parliament are in 2009. Almost all of 2008 will be required for ratification. That leaves the second half of 2007 to fix the details. The Portuguese presidency, as worthy as it assuredly will be, won’t have the resources to put behind a treaty push that the German one has. And Merkel’s background has made her an honest broker on Central European issues in a way no other current leader I can think of could match. She’s been good enough at cajoling that Germany’s role as largest contributor has almost never been mentioned. But there’s that, too.

Anyway, as almost always in things EU, compromise at the last possible moment remains the way to bet.

Kaczynski tempting Godwin?

As you all know EU member states are preparing for an important EU summit to discuss a new treaty replacing the failed constitution project. For a summary of what’s at stake, you can have a look at this BBC News page. I do not have the time to discuss the summit at length, but there is one interesting tidbit that I would like to highlight, if only for its “entertainment” value.

It seems Poland will come up with anything to strengthen its voting power within the EU. First they suggested a country’s voting weight should be tied to the square root of its population and now, get this, Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski has started using World War II as an argument for trying to get a larger share of the votes.

He suggested, in a radio interview, that without WWII Poland would have had 66 million inhabitants by now, instead of the current 38.5 million. And since the voting strength of a country is based upon the size of its population Poland would therefore deserve a larger share of the votes… Morally, I suppose. Interesting detail: of the 6.5 million Polish people that were killed in WWII 3.5 million were Jewish. (source: an unlinkable page -currently number 123- at NOS Teletekst)

I am sure AFOE readers will find plenty to discuss here. Beware Godwin, though. Also, if you find another source for this, please mention it in comments.

Instant update

I just love the internet. At ArcaMax Publishing I found another, even more provocative, account of what Kaczynski said:

Poland is challenging population-based voting rights in the European Union by saying it would have more people if Germany hadn’t slaughtered Poles.

French Parliamentary elections update

The final results of the French Parliamentary elections 2007 are in. The UMP (Union pour un mouvement populaire) gets 324 seats as opposed to 359 in 2002, the Socialist Party & its allies together have 207 as against 149 in 2002, François Bayrou’s centrist Mouvement démocrate (MoDem, ex UDF) gets 4, the Communist Party gets 15 seats and Le Nouveau Centre (ex UDF) gets 22.

Le Pen’s Front National has been annihilated and reduced to its hardcore grassroots. According to today’s Le Figaro 54% of FN voters stayed home, 27% voted for the Right and 19% voted for the Left.

The Left’s surprisingly strong showing in the second round has been able to stem the blue tidal wave, even though the UMP maintains a strong majority. As Alex already noted earlier one reason for this is MoDem voters swinging their way. Another reason could very well be Sarkozy’s recent talk about “the social VAT”. The idea was to raise VAT to contain outsourcing and improve competitiveness by making consumers carry a part of the social security burden.

It is also interesting to note that the share of female representatives rose from 12.2% in 2002 to 18.5% in 2007 and that the median age of representatives is now 55 (source: paper version of Le Figaro) . The Assemblée overall got a bit younger.

In the meantime the new government has also been announced. The complete list of secretaries can be found here at Le Figaro or here at the BBC News Site. One interesting newcomer: Rachida Dati (video), Minister of Justice. Could she, her parents being of North African descent, become a symbolic figurehead for a French equivalent of the American Dream? She herself plays down the importance of her ethnic background, but just imagine what the very concept of a Rêve Française could do to integration and the overall image of immigrants. Those readers of AFOE who still remember me after my hiatus already know the drill: discuss in comments. If you need some inspiration, compare:

From this article in The Independent on US presidential candidate Barack Obama:

This family history, coupled with a gentle manner and a political message of reconciliation and healing, make Mr Obama one of a select group of blacks – Tiger Woods and Colin Powell are two others that come to mind – who transcend race. Whites do not feel threatened by them. Rather they make Americans feel good about themselves and a society in which this sort of ascent is possible.

And from the BBC News profile on Rachida Dati:

Lawyer Rachida Dati, named as French justice minister by President Sarkozy, is the first person of North African origin to hold a top government post in Paris. She was born in 1965 to an Moroccan mason father and an Algerian mother, one of 12 children raised in humble circumstances. At the age of 16, she started working as a carer in a private clinic. The premature death of her mother forced her to look after her younger sisters and brothers.

Not just in America?

Late night addendum

Tonight on French television news I heard a nice summary of Fillon’s diverse second cabinet, which includes several young people: “Everything the Left dreamt of has now been realised by the Right”. Sarkozy & Co have managed to rejuvenate, diversify and somehow emancipate French high office. And they have reached out to the Left and Centre. Is this truly the beginning of a nouvelle vague in French politics? We’ll see.

Regarding the emancipation, women that are now holding high offices, there is Justice Minister Rachida Dati, of course, but we now also have Christine Lagarde, the first female Finance and Economy Minister of a G7 country. See also this article in the Financial Times. I saw Lagarde, the fifth most successful business woman in Europe in 2002, profiled on tv and was immediately struck by her posture and her impeccable English. Classy lady and no doubt very competent. Will she be popular? We’ll have to wait and see how she will handle the hot irons of the “social VAT” and the envisioned relaxation of the 35-hour week law.

And then there are also junior ministers Fadela Amara and Rama Yade. Fadela Amara is the founder of the egalitarian women’s right organisation Ni putes ni soumises. Their main slogan is “Egalité, Laïcité, Mixité”, roughly translated as “Equal, Secular, Mixed”. She has been appointed junior minister in charge of towns.

Rama Yade is, in her own words, “everything that politicians are not: female, young, black and muslim”. This young politician of Senegalese descent is now junior foreign office minister with a responsibility for human rights.

I do not think a Left majority could have done a much better job in forming a government. At least not until they reform their party, throw out some heavy weights that are blocking progress and sort out a few internal issues that are really not that interesting to voters.

Tidal Wave Fails to Devastate Rue de Solférino

Well, we shall wait to see the pundits explain exactly why the planned “vague bleue” for Nicolas Sarkozy failed to wipe out all traces of socialism in France as predicted. Leszek Kolakowski once described his Theory of the Infinite Cornucopia, which states that there exists an Infinite Cornucopia of reasons that can be invoked after the fact for whichever event actually happens. No doubt the cornucopia will be emptied and licked clean.

Le Monde reports – the PS has actually gained seats from last time, and the doomsodden predictions are exploded. Current forecasts put the UMP on 311-320 seats as against 359 in 2002, the PS on 210-212 compared with 149 last time out, the Communists on 17-18 (still in with a chance of saving their status as a parliamentary group), the Greens clinging on to four seats, the Nouveau Centre (the pro-Sarkozy UDFers) with 20 seats, and Francois Bayrou’s Mouvement Democrate with four seats. Le Pen gets zilch. Philippe de Villiers’ barking-right MPF gets anywhere between 2 and 6 seats.

It’s the leadership that suffered, though. Alain Juppé, the ex-prime minister and ex-con who was tapped to run a new, giant ministry of transport, infrastructure, energy and the environment, lost his seat in Bordeaux to the Socialist mayor. Arno Klarsfeld, one of the Right’s intellectuals, also got the order of the boot. Essentially everywhere, the MoDem voters swung to the Left.

So did François Hollande, although personally rather than politically. It emerged today that his partner, Ségoléne Royal, has thrown the First Secretary out of their home. Le Figaro found this such shattering news that they ran it on the front page lead, as a tiny news-in-brief ticker mentioned the insignificant detail that, well, the left got a majority of votes cast.

Laurent Fabius and Jean-Claude Cambadélis, who both rushed to the cameras with prepared doomsaying about how the PS must be “refounded” (translation = must be led by me), may be feeling a little stranded by the wave’s failure to arrive.

Fertility in Europe

According to the Economist last week “Reports of Europe’s death are somewhat exaggerated“. I can only whole-heartedly agree. I think though, it only fair to add, that reports of Europe’s impending old age are almost certainly not, indeed generally it might be felt that the significance of this phenomenon were rather underestimated, than overstated.

Let me explain.

As the Economist article itself points out, here in Europe a good deal more attention has been being focused on the potential impact of climatic change (which is in and of itself undoubtedly an important topic), whilst, and in contrast, comparatively little coverage is being given to our need to develop a population policy:

though every rich country has a climate-change policy, few have a population one (there are historical reasons for that). And just as everyone whinges about the weather, but does nothing about it, so everyone in Europe complains, but does nothing, about population.

Again I tend to agree. Part of the difficulty comes, I think, from our undoubted tendency to try – as the Economist also notes – to simplify what are undoubtedly complex topics. This simplification processes can in itself produce rather sudden and noticeable shifts in opinion, as we have recently seen in some quarters in the case of climate change. What was previously thought by some to be benign, now is thought to be not quite so benign, and in the process a new global consensus emerges, even if comparatively little seems to have changed in the way of available evidence.

And so it will probably be with demography. In part, if this does turn out to be the case the Economist itself may turn out to be one of the guilty parties, since interesting and useful as this article is, it does most definitely fall into the complacent – things aren’t so bad as was feared – camp.

The article makes 6 main points:

i) “This article will argue that pessimism is no longer justified. It would be too much to say Europe’s population is bouncing back. But its long-term decline is starting to bottom out, and is even rising in a few places.

ii) A long list of US observers – ranging from American observers from Walter Laqueur, an academic, to Mark Steyn, a conservative polemicist – who have been arguing that “Europe is fast becoming a barren, ageing, enfeebled place” are wrong.

iii) That changes in population are not – in and of themselves – either a good or a bad thing in economic terms, since “there is no short-term correlation between population change and wealth” and “Japan and South Korea have even lower fertility than Europe”.

iv) Europe is simply not in decline. “Rather…. it no longer makes sense to talk about Europe as a single demographic unit at all” since “There are two Europes.”

v) Some “very-low-fertility countries can fall into a trap”. (This is a reference to a hypothesis which has been advanced by the Austrian demographer Wolfgang Lutz and his collaborators at the Vienna Institute of demography, although strangely, even while the Economist author uses adjusted data from the VID for the article, Lutz himself doesn’t appear to warrant a mention. I have posted on this hypothesis extensively both on Afoe and elsewhere, and a list of posts can be found here)

vi) “16 European countries, with a total population of 234m, now have fertility rates of 1.8 or more…..They are rare examples of bucking the trend that, as countries get richer, their birth rates fall. Why? There are no obvious answers.”

Of these (iv) (with qualifications see below) and (v) seem to be arguably very much to the point, (vi) is undoubtedly true, (iii) is highly questionable (in substance, though not in the rather constrained form in which the argument is presented, again see below), (ii) is undoubtedly the case, due to the simplistic way in which the argument is often put, and (i) is really not only deeply questionable, but fall foul of exactly the same kind of oversimplification process which the article’s author would want us to reject from Europe’s US critics. A case of double standards?

Well, let’s take a look at what is actually happening.

In the first place, as the Economist argues (and this is undoubtedly one of the strong points of the article) it is simply not satisfactory to talk about Europe as one single demographic whole. There are several Europe’s, and perhaps not two, but four. The general situation can be rapidly grasped by a quick glance at this map which I have put online here.

In the first place we have those countries – essentially France, the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands and Scandinavia – where fertility is at, or near, population replacement rate. The population path here, if you add in a certain quantity of immigration which the comparatively strong economic dynamic of these countries naturally attracts, would certainly seem to be pretty sustainable, and at least a lot more sustainable than in many other countries. As noted above these countries vary considerably in their welfare and tax systems, so it is hard to identify any specific feature which has contributed to their relative stability. This being said, that isn’t the end of the problem, unfortunately, since demographic processes are not only about fertility, they are also about life expectancy, and increases in the latter, which seem to form part of what Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently referred to as an ongoing demographic transition, a transition which is associated with rising population median ages and which is destined, with or without fertility-related problems, to place growing pressure on the health and pensions systems of all OECD countries.

In the second place, and at, as it were, the opposite extreme, we have the former member States of the Eastern Bloc. I single this group out as a special category since they are arguably still operating under the weight of what could well be termed an “asymmetric demographic shock” since their fertility generally plummeted following the coming down of the Berlin Wall. In addition, prior to the coming down of the wall, the mean age at first birth of mothers was significantly below that which could be found in Western Europe (see this map here for an at a glance appreciation) and below ages which are now considered to be the norm for developed societies with services-oriented economies. As a result these countries face what could be called a continuing “birth dearth” as mean first-birth ages move steadily upwards over – and probably over a good number of years to come – as women systematically put off having children to ever-higher ages.

This postponement process can lead many astray into thinking that the impact the process has on Total Fertility Rates (TFRs) is benign, since eventually TFRs may well recover somewhat (if there is not a trap, again see below), and although this debate gets incredibly technical involving comparisons of Completed Cohort Fertility Rates and TFRs, and the study of an issue which has become known as Quantum vs Tempo, one of the obvious impacts is easy enough to understand: with each passing generation the size of the cohort base from which children can be born is reduced, and substantially so – as a result of the missing births. The structural damage which this does to the shape of the population pyramid is known as the negative momentum effect, and this is one of the mechanisms which has been identified as a factor in any possible low-fertility trap.

In the third place we have the ‘Latin’ cultures of Southern Europe – Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece – where, by and large, significant birth postponement has already taken place (Portugal is something of an outlier here), but where fertility still stubbornly sticks near to the lowest-low TFR 1.3 zone. I think entering the specifics of these countries is going to have to remain beyond the scope of the present post, but my feeling is that Portugal and Italy are much more stuck in the fly-trap than Greece and Spain are (this remains outside my present scope since the explanation of why I think this is the case rests on a development of the economic dynamics of the trap which Claus Vistesen and I are currently working on, which I briefly outline here, and which I sort of spell out in the case of Italy here. In a nutshell, it depends on whether – as a population – you are still young enough to get a housing boom or not).

Fourthly and lastly we have the case of the German speaking countries, namely Germany and Austria (and a part of Switzerland). The German case is by now reasonably well known. Aggregate fertility was, of course, negatively affected by the fertility “crash” in the former DDR, but as the graph appearing in the middle of this post – and which compares the two constituents independently – reveals, fertility in the West is low in its own right, and has been so for a very long time now.

As the Economist notes:

Germany not only has low fertility now, but has had for more than a generation. This suggests that “exceptionally” low rates can persist for decades. Admittedly, points out Michael Teitelbaum of the Sloan School in New York, Germany may simply be odd demographically.

Now while the German fertility pattern is decidedly odd, perhaps one of the oddest of odd features in the recent childbirth patterns there is omitted from mention in the article, namely the relatively higher numbers of women in German-speaking cultures who remain childless (see this chart where you can see the very rapid and significant rise in childlessness – up towards the 25% mark – among German women since the 1950 cohort) and indeed the proportions of women in these cultures who have considered it normal not to have a child. As can be seen in this chart, in answer to the question asked of women in the 2002 Eurobarometer survey about what their “ideal” number of children would be some 16.6% (in the 18-34 age group) declared “none” to be their ideal number of children in Germany and 12.6% in Austria.

These results do tend to give credence to the idea that some part of the low fertility in Germany is structurally different from low fertility in other members of the “lowest-low” group, in that a more significant part of the childlessness may be due to a free and voluntary decision rather than a result of biological infertility produced by excessive postponement.

But high levels of childlessness are not the only significant characteristic of low fertility in Germany, as can be seen from a glance at this chart, which compares the parity composition of childbirth (ie numbers of children) in six EU countries – Italy, Federal Republic of Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, Finland and France – for the 1935 cohort. If we make a direct comparison between Germany and France we can see that not only does Germany have more women who remain childless, of those who have children, a far lower percentage were having third and fourth children.

If we then take a look at the time-series chart for the percentages of children born out of wedlock to mothers in a number of EU countries which I have at the bottom of this post, we can see that in the case of Germany it is noticeable that the percentage of children born out of wedlock remained low in comparison with the UK, Sweden and France right though the second half of the last century, and that the level had stabilized by the 1990s (at around one-sixth of the birth total): this is an interesting result since marriage and the family are specifically protected by the German Constitution and since we have seen how since unification the number of such births has been halved in the east, where “illegitimacy” was previously massive.

So we may well have a rather perverse situation here, whereby “family” (as opposed to child oriented) policy specifically targeted married couples, and – at least in terms of tax concessions – favoured the father rather than the mum, with the result that – given the significant social transformations which were taking place in family types during the period in question – less children where born. Such at any rate is the opinion of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research demographer Jan M. Hoem, as argued in this paper (PDF).

So now lets go to point (iii) in my list from the Economist, namely the idea that population change is economic growth neutral. I would say that this was perhaps the most controversial idea in the whole article. The key point to note here I think, is that it is not population SIZE that matters, but population age structure. Changes in age structure effectively produce – as was mentioned in the context of Ben Bernanke and the Demographic Transition earlier – shifts in median ages, and these shifts in median ages do seem to have significant economic consequences. Basically, if we look – yes, actually look – at those societies whose median age has reached the highest level – around 43 – so far – Germany, Japan, and Italy – we can note straight off that each of these has been experiencing economic problems in recent years which to some extent break away from the traditional pattern. I do not wish to go into this in any great detail here (that will be, I think, another post), but basically it could be argued that these three countries all tend to be suffering from congenitally weak domestic consumer demand, and as a result tend to depend on export lead growth for increases in GDP (increases which in the case of Italy remain exceedingly small, due to the inability to meet the export-lead growth challenge).

I have recently gone into all this in some considerable depth in the German case (and here) so I will simply refer the interested reader to this line of argument. But this kind of economic problem will undoubtedly feed-back into the fertility trap problem (if one exists), and in particular by maintaining downward pressure on the disposable income available to young people, both via the tax squeeze that ageing and the associated higher elderly dependency ratios produces (viz, the 3% VAT rise in Germany) and the downward pressure on wages which is being systematic and relentless in both Germany (see this remarkable Q1 2007 wage data from Eurostat, just 0.1% growth in wage costs y-o-y after the boom year of 2006) and Japan (where again wages continue to fall, and here).

So, in summing up, what can we now make of the Economist’s claims that “pessimism is no longer justified” and that “Europe’s population is bouncing back”? Well, I would say that pessimism is rarely justified, since it tends to produce fatalism. On the other hand realism leads me to want to qualify the Economist’s claims in the following way:

* Europe is only bouncing back in parts, so it is hard to draw any real conclusions, in particular a very large part of Europe still has – as can be seen here – around 70% of its population with TFRs below 1.7, and 1.7 is already significantly below replacement level.

* Demographic changes are not processes which only go to work in the very long term, the short term consequences of changing median ages are already real and present.

* The economic consequences of changing population age structures are not growth neutral, but are real and significant.

* As a consequence of all of this we simply cannot afford to continue to give demographic changes the back seat. Europe needs above all policy – rather than complacency – in the face of these changes, and such policies ought to be just as evident in the minds of our citizens as the recent declarations of good intent about the need to act on climate change.

UKIP with adverbs

The “Open Europe” boys apparently think that giving the EU a legal personality would be a huge transfer of powers from the UK to “Brussels”. Legal personality, essentially, means that the EU would be allowed to sign cheques – or rather that it could sign for the member states.

Well, that sounds like a big transfer of powers, no? The EU could sign away the spoons and we’d know nothing of it! Sadly, as always with Eurosceptics, there is a lot of discourse abuse here. The EU is a law-governed entity. That is to say, whether it could sign something is governed by its own decision-making procedures. Having legal personality would not give the Commission, or whatever, more power to make decisions, as it is subject to its own procedures. The only situation where “Britain” would lose powers here would be if we were to assent to something (if it was this important, it would presumably be subject to unanimity) and then decide to refuse our signature, after ratifying it!

Why, in this wild scenario, would we care? Wouldn’t we be leaving anyway? Enough of “Open Europe”, anyway. How does this stuff differ in quality from, say, David Noakes?

Eins, Zwei, Polizei…ZWOOOOSH!

God knows I’ve been snarky about German lefties before. Look, not everyone who disagrees with you is a Nazi. Lectures are not a form of rape. Osama bin Laden is not on the side of eco-feminism. (The last one is a true story, although Austrian rather than German.) But it’s very true that the modern German police gets the hot shivers for new kit.

Was there any reason at all for this? For non-German readers, during the G8 summit in Heiligendamm, the police seem to have obtained the use of a Bundeswehr Tornado reconnaissance plane, and to have sent it to photograph a camp of protestors. That is creepy, but this is inexcusable: the pass was carried out as if the aircraft was doing its 1980s mission, at 150 metres’ altitude and maximum speed.

Naturally, the Greens point out that aircraft of the same type are in use over Afghanistan, and therefore Germany is Iraq and everyone is a nazi, or something. But it’s impossible to see any justification for this except for a pure indulgence in power. If they really had wanted photographs, they could have had better ones with less drama. But someone felt it necessary to drop a sonic boom over the autonomous chaosists, and the pilots are not born yet who would pass up the chance for some very fast low-level flying with an audience. Neither is the Interior Minister yet born who would pass up the chance to impress the Bild Zeitung with a binge on force.

As so often, Germany and Britain are more alike than anyone would care to admit. Not that the RAF was available to buzz demonstrators on the road to Gleneagles in 2005, but there is little in current government practice to support it. I am reminded, though, of Tim Garton-Ash’s description of a huge police deployment to squash a far-left demo on the day of reunification in Berlin. He referred to Hartley Shawcross’s crack that “we are the masters now”. Well, this is over. If there’s anyone who can’t appeal to that glee of first days, it’s the G8.

The Sky, the Sea

Armscontrolwonk has a seriously unreported scoop about the great Czech radar kerfuffle. Namely, why is the US playing down the capabilities of the one element of the missile defence plan that actually works, and wouldn’t need anything as politically contentious as a new missile base? Defence geeks will already guess what we’re talking about, which is the capability of the US Navy’s Aegis air defence cruiser to shoot at missiles in the boost phase. It seems the Missile Defense Agency isn’t keen on the notion.

There’s a lot going for it. For a start it, ah, works – the problem is much simpler. In the boost phase, the rocket is going up, but not covering much ground towards you, so it’s easier to shoot at. And the enemy ends up with the bits. Ships go to sea, and lurk in international waters – they can move to cover a specific threat, and don’t need to be based very near their patrol areas.

So, a suggestion. ACW mentions a souped-up version of the SM-3 rocket that’s being developed with the Japanese. They, after all, have bought four destroyers equipped with the missiles and the fancy radar and computer systems. Why, then, can’t Europe buy its own? A lot of objections to the whole plan are based on them being “American” bases. After all, we can’t be totally sure that the missiles would hurtle up to intercept nukes inbound to London, Vienna, Toulouse, or Tallinn – can we? So why not have our own? – during the cold war we thought this argument very important with regard to offensive nuclear weapons. Presumably, such a purchase would bring in lucrative workshare for Thales, Astrium, Matra-BAE Dynamics & Co.

And you could even call it a force de défense spatiale tous azimuts. Ships sail, right? Including to the North Atlantic, if need be. There is, however, a probby. Putting ships in the eastern Mediterranean is easy enough. Putting them in the high North and the North Sea is politically and militarily easy, although it’s a tough job in winter. The Baltic? Well, there’s nothing to stop you, and both sides are in friendly hands. The Russians wouldn’t be happy. But then, they wouldn’t anyway. ACW, though, reckons you might need one in the Black Sea.

Special international agreements exist regarding the transit of the Straits, to which Russia is a party. Specifically, you can’t send aircraft carriers through. An Aegis ship is no carrier, but that don’t mean they aren’t going to make a big fuss about it. Update: WSI Brussels Blog has more.

Immigration and Germany, a Continuing Story

The German newspaper whose web site is now marginally better organized reports that Germany will offer a legal means to regularize the residence status of people who have lived in the country for several years without having, shall we say, dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s at the local immigration office. State governments have also agreed to give some preference in civil service hiring to people from immigrant backgrounds. The federal change had been agreed to by the current grand coalition, and the agreement of the states obviously includes those with governments of many different stripes.

This is all to the good. Every step that has been taken away from the late Kohl government’s position that “Germany is not a destination for immigration” has been a step in the right direction. In recent years, the number of German citizens has held steady mainly because of people taking on citizenship, as deaths continue to outpace births. The head-in-the-sand view that there aren’t immigrants in Germany is steadily retreating to the margins, and rightly so. (In practice, according to the newspaper, the new regulation affects about 100,000 people who have been denied asylum over the years.)

One criterion is that the foreigner should not “have come into serious conflict with German laws.” I hope they don’t mean like this or this. On the other hand, Americans and Australians are apparently exempt from the language requirement for getting residence permits for family members. Jawohl, fair dinkum, guys.

Standing Watch in the Balkans

As big-media Matt says, it’s all over the net already, but the question of whether Bush’s watch was stolen in Albania is a convenient hook to link to this hilarious but tasteless guide to what various groups of Europeans think about one another. Albania is near the end, in the Balkan section.

I have a friend in the US Embassy in Tirana, but she’s probably sworn to tell only the official line. Alas.

Update: Commenter FF points us to the reverse angle on the play. Interestingly, the current administration is telling the truth. And speaking of Albania, can I just say that Wag the Dog was a hell of a lot funnier during the Clinton years?