Transnistria: a solution?

A recent article over at Radio Free Europe suggests that Moldova and Russia may be getting close to a solution of the Transnistria conflict. (For some background on Transnistria, here are some articles I wrote last year.)

Now, RFE tends to be pretty Russophobe, so there’s a certain amount of mouth-breathing: Moldova has turned back to Moscow and away from the West! It’s going to become a satellite of Russia once more!

Well… perhaps. But in terms of settling the Transnistrian conflict, the deal described in the article makes a lot of sense. Continue reading

Sarko tilts at the trente-cinq

It’s tough to pin Nicolas Sarkozy down. He had spent the last week in apparent populist mode, hence his proposal for a redistribution of the VAT windfall on fuel taxes, and working on a plan to use France’s EU presidency to drive a clampdown on immigration to the EU. Yet he has added to this a proposal to open the door to the iconic Polish Plumber and now he has set up what looks like a straight conflict with the unions over the 35 hours. The odd thing is that one week ago he seemed content to work around the edges of the 35 hour week: endorsing what seemed like a rebuke by his labour minister to a call from Patrick Devedjian (UMP leader) to get rid of it. But the actual draft legislation seems to keep the 35 hour week only in a nominal sense while allowing so much variation above it that it would be seriously eroded. Perhaps a gambit that he can split “the France that wakes up early” from those with enough income to have a meaningful labour-leisure tradeoff. Coupled with a calculation that he can wear out the opposition over the July and August vacances. But not much sign of chastened Gordon Brown style U-turns.

Sarko the Euro-populist

In what is no doubt part of his resurrection bid, French president Nicolas Sarkozy has proposed a  vague-sounding cap on VAT/TVA as applied to fuel.  He has a point.  VAT is an accelerator of underlying price increases, since the amount applies as a percentage of the net price and not is a fixed monetary amount (like fuel duty).  Thus any increase in the net fuel price gets 21% (in Ireland, for example) added on to it.    On the other hand, he’s also dragging in the EU, since the commission would have to approve a modification of VAT as applied to fuel.  So pending that, all he has is a proposal to “redistribute” the VAT windfall as selective subsidies or transfers.  One wonders to what extent such proposals will generate “me too” proposals in other countries — especially in the UK, where Gordon Brown will surely balk at yet another revenue drain as he deals with a summer of discontent. 

And then, a LIBRARY!

The German newspaper whose website could be better organised has a very good article about the Gurtel, Vienna’s other great boulevard, once described as the proletarian Ringstrasse. I never knew this, though:

Wobei auf dem Gürtel früher Linksverkehr herrschte, wie in England. Siegfried Tschmul, ein Wiener Jude, erinnert sich gut daran. Als er 1938, nachdem die deutschen Truppen in Wien einmarschiert waren, eines Morgens aus seinem Fenster hinunter auf den Währinger Gürtel sah, fuhren alle Autos plötzlich rechts, wie in Deutschland. Über Nacht war der gesamte Verkehr umgestellt worden, und niemand hatte ein Problem mit der neuen Ordnung. Da sei ihm klar geworden, dass er Wien verlassen musste. Mit seinen Eltern floh er aus Österreich.

They used to drive on the left? Who knew? And the image of everyone suddenly driving on the right, the morning after the Nazi seizure of power, is better than any novelist could have invented. I liked this, too:

Denn die Rotlichtszene, lange untrennbar mit dem Gürtel verbunden, verliert ihr Publikum, vor allem dort, wo der Gürtel so schick und quirlig geworden ist. Eine der Unterweltgrößen, in Wien “Strizzis” genannt, hat den Sittenverfall schon in einem Interview beklagt. Erst seien die Stadtbahnbögen ausgeräumt und Kulturzentren eingerichtet worden. Und dann hätten sie ihm auch noch “eine Bibliothek hingebaut”.

What did the porno boss find most offensive? The library, damn it.

While Europe Napped

Perhaps not “While Europe Slept”, but can we have a little more attention to what’s going on in Italy? As well as the fascist saluting business, and the is-he-joking-is-he-serious threats of violence, we’re seeing gypsy camps being set on fire by thugs, whose behaviour is being excused by the Northern League on grounds that the government hasn’t gone far enough in kicking them out of the country. The government, for its part, is happily legislating against people on the grounds of citizenship, and has apparently decided to forget about the Treaty of Rome and the ECHR for a while.

What genuinely worries me, though, is this trope of people working-towards-the-leader, going too far, and being tacitly understood as having the right motives. It’s traditionally one of the most effective ways to get people to do something really awful. Similarly, this parallel-police tendency is very dangerous stuff – Misha Glenny reckons the goons are being supplied by the Camorra, which wouldn’t surprise me at all. Hey, and people thought I was crazy when I suggested Berlusconi might not go when he lost the last election…

Fortunately there’s the Spanish deputy prime minister and a Hungarian MEP;

Hungarian liberal MEP and a Roma herself Viktoria Mohacsi visited gypsy camps outside Rome and Naples. According to Italy’s AGI news agency, she said that she had been “frightened and filled with horror” by what she had seen.

She referred to “[the] random night roundups, assault in prisons, gratuitous arrests and a general persecutory climate unworthy of a country which considers itself democratic.”

but this isn’t enough. The European Commission is silent. Does anyone now remember that they applied official sanctions to Austria because of the FPO’s entry in government? Yes, they consisted of marginally reducing the size of the flag on the EC representative office on the Karntner Ring or something, but at least it made the point.

One, two, many Uneuropean Unions

We’ve occasionally played with the idea of the EU as the Borg, a new kind of political entity whose chief means of power is membership in its system of technocratic cooperation. The paradigm of this is, of course, the successful absorption of the Mediterranean ex-dictatorships and the economic development of the poor periphery – not just the ex-communist states but also places like Ireland and Portugal. Here’s something interesting, if you really like that sort of thing – Kosmopolit blogs about the changing nature of the EU Neighbourhood Policy and the various other headings under which the EU’s foreign policy falls – the Black Sea Synergy (ouch), the Eastern Partnership, the Barcelona Process et al.

The crucial insight is that rather than the potential new members (or not, but we’ll come to that) being offered a list of things they must do with regard to the EU in order to get something from the EU, it’s now a question of their being asked to do EU-like things with regard to a third country, for example to set up institutional cooperation on specific problems or monitor each others’ democratic credentials. The really interesting bit is that this doesn’t have to apply to EU membership only – it could also mean a policy of encouraging the creation of alternative EU-like communities.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if the EU, so often derided as a hypercentralised bureaucratic monster, was actually a prototype of a rhizomatic form of government?

Illiberal Direct Democracy

Over at the German-speaking version of ScienceBlogs, they’re talking about a referendum (and nobody’s going to sing a song with that as the refrain), or rather a whole package of them. Switzerland famously has a lot of referendums, but this one is interesting because it points up the fundamental tension between democracy and the republic.

So part of Switzerland voted, in a referendum, to deny naturalisation of anyone from a state formerly part of Yugoslavia. Later, the courts struck down the ban on the grounds that this decision breached the constitutional prohibition on arbitrary rule (Willkurverbot, something I can well agree with). Although it was democratic, it was illegitimate. Now, people who are cool with arbitrary rule in so far as it effects teh immigrants are trying to restore the ban by means of a federal referendum.

I’ve never liked direct democracy very much – especially not the version that’s centred on referendums rather than deliberation. And as I happened to be in Switzerland last week, I took the opportunity to confirm my prejudices. The Neue Zurcher Zeitung for this Friday carried an interesting item, which tends to deny the idea that referendums are a means of clearer, more faithful, more independent political representation. Their Parolenspiegel – “slogan mirror” would be an insufficient translation – sets out a table with three columns, one for each referendum, and 12 rows, one for each of 12 political parties. Each cell in the table contains either the word JA or NEIN, depending on that party’s view of that particular proposal. Below this, there is a further table with the same information for 22 different interest groups. Now there’s independent for you.

In footnotes to this, 24 cases are listed where the youth, women’s, or local branches of this or that party has a different position. Clearly, the citizen is offered an unparalleled choice of ways to avoid thinking about their vote, although what happens in the event of conflict is an interesting question – perhaps you put all the data in tables and use the Analytic Hierarchy Process?

Eurovision: can’t resist

Liveblogging the first half hour, before I’m too drunk to continue.

Romania okay, will get votes but not a winner. Britain so-so, not that bad but not real Eurovision. Albania cute female lead singer in a cloak with bare midriff and a wind machine… okay.

Germany godawful! Geez — bad outfits, horrible singing, annoying song. Armenia very Armenian, strong female singer singing in Armenian (which sounds more impressive than it is; I know enough Armenian to know she’s singing the same two trite phrases over and over). Guys climbing all over each other — looks like an old Soviet circus troupe there.

Bosnia… what the hell. Bride outfits, fright wigs, laundry? Surreal, in a very Yugoslav sort of way, but not a contender. Israel, Boaz “the Yemeni nightingale” singing in mixed Hebrew and English — very handsome guy if you like ‘em like that, and somehow very Eurovision-y. Shortlist.

The wife has made nachos. We have beer. Continue reading

Eurovision 2nite ZOMG

I’m tempted to liveblog, but I plan to drink, so maybe not.

Quick: in the few hours that remain, who’s your favorite? The bookmakers’ favorites are Russia, Ukraine and Greece. Me? I like those Latvian pirates, and hell, Romania’s always pretty good. Okay, a kind word for Armenia too. Bring it.

Who’ve you got?