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.

The new great game

Our next anniversary guest post is written by the the great Jonathan Edelstein.

It’s starting to look like the season of referenda in the near abroad.

On September 17, less than a week from today, voters in the unrecognized republic of Transnistria, located between Moldova and Ukraine, will be asked to vote on whether to “renounce [their] independent status and subsequently become part of the Republic of Moldova” or “support a policy of independence… and subsequent free association with the Russian Federation.” The option of “free association” with Russia, which is widely considered a prelude to outright annexation, is reportedly backed by a large number of Russian-financed business and political organizations, some with long-standing presence in Transnistrian politics and others apparently formed for the occasion. In the meantime, South Ossetia, which had earlier explored the possibility of petitioning Russia’s constitutional court for annexation, has just announced its own referendum for November 12, and although Abkhazia currently denies similar plans, there are rumors that a plebiscite may be in the works there as well.

The referenda, which are rather transparently supported by Moscow, represent something of a change in policy for the Russian Federation. It’s certainly nothing new for post-Soviet Russia to attempt to maintain its influence over the countries comprising the former Soviet Union, and it has at times used Russian citizenship to cement the “soft” annexation of neighboring territories; for instance, at least 90 percent of Abkhazians and South Ossetians now hold Russian passports. Nevertheless, up to now, it has soft-pedaled the issue of de jure territorial expansion. The forthcoming vote on whether Transnistria should become a second Kaliningrad suggests that policymakers in Moscow are at least starting to think seriously about taking formal responsibility for the territories that have broken away from other former Soviet republics.

At first glance, it’s hard to see why Russia would push such a policy at the present time. All three of the breakaway republics have substantial minorities who oppose union with Russia; Transnistria is almost evenly divided between ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Romanians, and despite post-Soviet ethnic cleansing, South Ossetia and Abkhazia retain Georgian minority enclaves. The recent wave of terrorist bombings in the Transnistrian capital of Tiraspol may well be linked to the referendum, and Russian annexation of the Georgian breakaway republics would only intensify border conflicts such as the Kodori Gorge. Nor would successful plebiscites lend a veneer of legitimacy to a Russian annexation; indeed, given the current international attitude toward non-consensual secessions from recognized states, this would only make Russia’s legal position worse by transforming it into an occupying power.

In other words, the referenda seem like a recipe for stirring up ethnic conflict within the breakaway republics, making Moldova and Georgia even more alarmed over Russian political ambitions than they already are, and creating new diplomatic and legal problems for Moscow. Which leads naturally to three questions: why now, what does Russia stand to gain in compensation for these risks, and how much should the rest of the world (and particularly Europe) care?
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Joe Van Holsbeeck

I’m not sure how much this story has been covered elsewhere, but the big story in Belgium for the last couple weeks has been the murder of Joe Van Holsbeeck, a 17 year old who was killed for an MP3 player in the main hall of Brussels Central train station during rush hour.

I left for vacation in Tunisia two days after the murder and returned just last Saturday, so I missed much of the development of the story. On Sunday, some 80,000 people marched, nominally in solidarity with the family but a little more realistically in response to fears about their security. I want to point out that much of Belgian society has behaved admirably. The victim’s family specifically did not want this to turn into a partisan cause. Almost all sectors of society expressed their horror at this crime without resorting to racialism. I’m actually kind of proud of my land of residence, which is not something that happens very often.

I, however, will not be abiding by the family’s wishes. I have a partisan statement make about this killing.
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China and Protectionism

The Chinese minister of trade Bo Xilai was in Paris yesterday. Most likely this is simply a happy coincidence, but the timing couldn’t have been better. The issue of Chinese textile imports has become one of the issues in the French referendum, and minister Bo was conveniently available to make all the right gestures:

“We want to soften the shockwave that there could be from the rise in Chinese textile exports,” Bo told a news conference after talks with French trade minister Francois Loos…”It is a temporary phenomenon and this phenomenon will weaken or disappear”.
Source: Reuters

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Free movement of labor, redux

On the previously mentioned subject of Europe’s “free” movement of labor (and the possibility of a massive influx of cheap labor from the east come EU accession time) here’s an article I wrote on the topic in November for Czech and Slovak Construction Journal (for some reason the article’s not posted online).

If you’re too lazy to read the whole thing… It talks about the onset of “EU fatigue” in the east, plus it cites a bunch of studies that discredit the fear of a massive influx of eastern workers wrecking havoc on Western European job markets. And this is really about Polish construction workers already living illegally in Berlin, not Czech IT geeks in London (nor British chefs in Prague). Enjoy.
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Book Review: “European Integration 1950-2003: Superstate or New Market Economy?”

Once upon a time, there was a large, intellectually hegemonic, somewhat totalising ideology rooted in a heterodox school of economics. Its advocates proposed to make massive changes to the structure of society and claimed that only such a revolutionary realignment could alleviate the contradictions and failures of the existing order and save the world from stagnation and misery. They claimed that their programme would produce immediate results, and that the only reason it wasn’t immediately implemented was because entrenched interests were manipulating the public against them.

Ultimately, advocates of these principles did gain power in many places and were able to implement elements of their programme. Some came to power through revolutions of various kinds that granted them the near-dictatorial powers they needed to make the changes they believed necessary. Others were able to convince electorates and even elites that theirs was the way of the future. They turned public dissatisfaction to their advantage, especially during economic downturns when people were willing to turn to new solutions and elites feared that the masses would turn against them.

And, they had some arguable successes, but no unambiguous ones. In some places, particularly those where effectively unlimited power had shifted to them, they often maintained highly inequitable regimes which grew harder and harder to justify, faced ever growing public disaffection, and turned to more oppressive and manipulative means to sustain control. This undermined their movement, but despite the best efforts of their enemies was not quite able to kill it off.

In states where more democratic methods had been used, the need to compromise with established interests and to sustain public consent forced them to accept measures often contrary to their initial programme. Their ideological identity tended to shift over time as winning elections grew more important than ideological purity and as the drawbacks of real power became apparent. Actually being held responsible for results forced many members of this tradition to accept their enemies’ interests as at least partially legitimate, and compelled them to less radical legislative programmes.

In some of those nations, these radical parties became increasingly manipulative and difficult to distinguish from their former enemies. But, in a few places, the necessary dilution of their programme brought about an ideological synthesis that appeared successful, and this success in turn showed that the radical programmes they had once advocated were perhaps unnecessary. In the end, ideology had no real hold on them, and the models and methods that seemed to work became the political and economic programme that they were identified with. Their former allies who operated more dictatorial regimes were easily repudiated.

But others were unable to accept that option. They included dissidents who had been burned by the growing authoritarianism of their own failed revolutions, or who were simply unable to accept that their early ideological purity had become superfluous. They were isolated and powerless, only able to function in the states where their former allies had become moderates, leaving them without meaningful public support. They fumed at the world’s unwillingness to go the way they wanted, and increasingly recast the history of the world in terms of their own ideological predispositions. The past became, in their minds, an unending conflict between an ideologically pure vanguard and scheming established interests, a story of their courageous champions betrayed by back-sliding traitors. Ultimately, the world moved on and these radicals virtually disappeared outside of intellectually protected milieux like privately-funded think tanks and universities.

Of course, by the now the astute reader will have recognised that I am talking about the history of neoliberalism.
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