Belgium holds the line

Brief recap: about six months ago, the EU suspended candidacy negotiations with Serbia because Belgrade was refusing to cooperate with the Hague Tribunal.

In particular, the Serbian government had stopped even pretending to look for accused war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. As chief Hague prosecutor Carla del Ponte put it, “I’m telling those who still wish to receive me – and fewer and fewer prime ministers and foreign ministers now find the time or interest to do so – that since last October, Belgrade has not been cooperating with the Tribunal at all. Not only has it failed to provide full cooperation – there has been no cooperation whatsoever.”

So the EU shut down candidacy negotiations. Kudos all around, right? Cooperation with the Hague was always a clear prerequisite for negotiations. The EU had made that clear, and the Serbs had agreed. No cooperation, no candidacy.

Then some EU members started getting cold feet.
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Eurovision: The Quickening.

78 days until Eurovision.

This is the season for choosing national entrants. The deadline is March 13; every candidate will have picked an entrant by March 10. Only a few countries have already made their choice. So, over the next three weeks, millions of people in over 30 countries will be choosing their national representatives.

It’s awe-inspiring, really.

First thoughts on this year’s contest below the fold.
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Five Germanys I Have Known by Fritz Stern

Fritz Stern was born in what was then Breslau, Germany, grandson of Jews who converted to Christianity, son and grandson of physicians and researchers, at a time when medicine was truly becoming a science and Germany was leading the way. His godfather and namesake was Fritz Haber, who discovered how to fix atmospheric nitrogen, won a Nobel, led research into poinson gas as a weapon, and died shortly after his forced emigration from Germany.

Stern emigrated with his family to the United States in late 1938, in the proverbial nick of time. He rejected Einstein’s advice to stay in the family business of medicine and became a distinguished historian of Germany and Europe. Along the way, he also became an active participant in transatlantic relations, always retaining his liberal perspective.
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Transparency International Strikes Again

So the new Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index came out last week. If you are a development geek — cough, cough — this is like Beaujolais Nouveau Day.

Not that there are any /huge/ surprises. The top ten slots are dominated by the same countries, year after year — Finland, the Netherlands, Singapore. European readers can be cheered by the fact that European countries occupy 13 of the top 20 slots.

The CPI is, of course, a perceptions survey. They poll a lot of investors and NGOs and whatnot and ask what they think. There are some obvious issues with this methodology. Other hand, they try to be rigorous about it, and keep the tests constant from country to country and from year to year. If you’re trying to measure corruption — an inherently difficult task — this is probably about the best broad-guage metric we have.

Meanwhile, a few geeky comments.
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Bosnia: Exit the Doctor

Here’s the short version. Bosnia has this thing called a “High Representative”. The High Rep is not a Bosnian. He’s a European charged with overseeing implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement (the 1995 treaty that has kept the various Bosnian groups from each others’ throats), and also with “representing the international community” in Bosnia.

The High Rep is much more than a diplomat. He’s really more like a colonial governor. He can pass laws and fire Bosnian politicians. If he flexes his muscles, he’s really the final authority in the country. You might think this is strange in what’s nominally a sovereign European state, but Bosnia is a strange place.

For four years, 2002-6, the High Rep was a British fellow named Paddy Ashdown. Paddy took his job seriously and did not hesitate to use his powers. He didn’t like nationalist politicians and he wanted Bosnia to act like a real country. So he banged some heads and stepped on a lot of toes.

Many, both in Bosnia and in the international community, did not like this. Paddy was accused of being an old-fashioned imperialist, high-handed, divisive. Furthermore, said many, he was stunting the political growth of the Bosnian state. As long as Paddy was there to twist arms, the Bosnians would never learn to solve their own problems.

So when Paddy left, the job was given to an elderly, mild-mannered German politician, Dr. Christian Schwarz-Schilling. Dr. Schwarz-Schilling made it clear in advance that he did not plan to use the powers of the High Rep’s office. In fact, he saw his job as overseeing the position’s liquidation. He “didn’t believe in colonialism for Bosnia,” said the good Doctor. The High Rep’s office would gradually ramp down, aiming for a complete shutdown within a year or two. The Bosnians would assume responsibility for their own destiny. Polite clapping all around.

That was a year ago.
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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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Serbia: That Incredible Shrinking Country

This weekend’s election results in Serbia, and in particular the gridlock state of the political process and the resilience of the vote for the nationalist Serbian Radical Party (as ably explained by Doug in the previous post), pose new, and arguably reasonably urgent questions for all those who are concerned about the future of those European countries who currently find themselves locked outside the frontiers of the European Union. What follows below the fold is a cross-post of an entry I put up earlier this afternoon on the new global economy blog: Global Economy Matters. I don’t normally like cross-posting, since I would prefer to put up original Afoe content, but my time is a bit pressed at the moment, and I feel the issues raised are important enough to merit a separate airing on this site.
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Hrant Dink shot dead

Hrant Dink, an Armenian-Turkish journalist who won fame and notoriety for challenging Turkish nationalism, was shot dead in Istanbul yesterday.

If you’re not following events in Turkey closely, you might not have heard of Hrant Dink. Briefly: he was an ethnic Armenian but born and raised in Turkey. The genocide didn’t kill or expel all of Turkey’s Armenians, quite; there are still about 50,000 of them, mostly living in or around Istanbul. Dink was the editor of the Armenian community’s newspaper, Agos, and also its most prominent public intellectual.

Dink got into trouble with Turkish authorities for two things: he insisted on the reality of the Armenian Genocide, and he openly discussed the ambiguous position of ethnic and religious minorities in the Turkish state. Dink wrote about how, as a boy, he had to sing the Turkish national anthem every day in school: “I am a Turk, I am hard working and honest… happy is he who calls himself a Turk… great is our race.” It made him think, he wrote: who am I? If not a Turk, then what?

“As a child, I didn’t know what it meant to be Turkish or Armenian. At Armenian boarding school in Istanbul, I recited the Turkish credo every morning, but I was also told I should preserve my Armenian identity. I never came across my own name in school books – only Turkish names. As an adolescent, I heard the word ‘Armenian’ used as a swearword. As a Turkish citizen, I saw high-court decisions that referred to Armenians as ‘foreigners living in Turkey’. The Armenian orphanage that I worked so hard to establish was confiscated by the state.”

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La Febbre

A couple of weeks back I had the pleasure of seeing Alessandro D’Alatri’s recent film La Febbre (Fever). As the reviewer says (Italian link), this is a ‘normal’ (everyday) film, not a great one, even if it does include one or two memorable moments, like the scenes shot along the river bank, which were (and I imagine this is not entirely unintentional) rather reminiscent of some which are to be found in the unforgettable L’Albero Degli Zoccoli from that giant of Italian cinema Ermanno Olmi.

La Febbre è il classico film italiano, che vuol raccontare una storia normale, di tutti i giorni, e che per farlo non trascende dai canoni della buona creanza del plot, e da quel pizzico di amara critica sociale che lo rende molto politically correct.”

(La Febbre (the fever) is a typical Italian film, the kind of film which tries to tell a simple, ‘normal’ story – an everyday one – and which in order to do this stays well within the bounds of what is normally thought to be an acceptable plot structure, and then, following the recipe, there is added just enough social criticism to make the film a highly politically correct one.)

My point of interest in this post, however, is not really the film itself, but rather the film as a reflection of something else: the disenchantment and frustration that many young Italians seem to feel with contemporary Italian society, and the impact that the evident failure of Italian civil society to adjust to Italy’s contemporary social and demographic reality may have on the future evolution of Italian economy and society.
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Twitchers

Torture, war, elections. Let’s talk about birdwatching for a bit.

Twitchers. The term is British. When a rare bird shows up, twitchers are people who will drop everything and rush to the scene.

They used to have phone trees, then for a while it was beepers. It’s cell-phones and e-mail now. Here is an interesting thing: if you look back to the early days of twitching, the 1960s and ’70s, you see them using an alert system that’s eerily similar to the formal regime for planespotting developed by British civil defense during WWII. Direct copy, inspiration, accident? I wonder. Does anyone here know?

Anyway. Your classic twitcher will leave job, family, or church service behind, seize camera, binoculars and notebook, jump in the car, and roar off to the copse where the black-bellied whistling duck has appeared for only the third time in Britain since 1937.
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