323 Years of Caffeine

One of Thomas Barnett’s commenters complained about Europe being a cafe society, so why not some café-blogging? After all, the collectif antilibérale over at European Tribune had a whole thread on brasseries not so long ago. Der Standard has a long article on the history of Viennese kaffeehäuser, going back to 1683 and the second siege of Vienna.

First of all, a classic trope of European history-the fact everyone knows, but that turns out to be rubbish. Like King Canute telling the tide to back off (a little like keeping spam out of our comments threads, but I digress) – everyone remembers that, but hardly anyone realises that Canute did it to humble his courtiers with the limits of power, rather than in a gesture of deluded arrogance. Every schoolboy knows that one Georg Franz Kolschitzky was rewarded for sneaking through the Turkish lines with a message by being given a stash of coffee beans from captured stocks. Another version is that, after the relief of Vienna, he looted the beans from the Turks’ abandoned baggage train, or bought them for a song from a soldier who didn’t know their value.

The only problem is that it’s not true.
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A new take on Eurobashing

Thomas P.M. Barnett, Pentagon pet intellectual and 4th Generation Warfare theorist, comes up with a new variant of the Eurabia meme I don’t think we’ve seen before. According to Barnett,

Nothing predicts Europe’s growing strategic irrelevancy more than their growing navel-gazing over the perceived threat of “Eurabia,” which speaks to a continent that’s gotten so fat, dumb and lazy that they’re fatalistically succumbing to fears of invasive species destroying their habitat. The reality is, of course, that thriving, self-aware societies can handle that influx and integrate the differences to make the whole stronger.

This is fascinating. All the usual US hard-right tropes are there, until the second sentence. There’s the blithe assumption of economic superiority (no mention, of course, of the US trade deficit with both the EU and China, currently 7% of GDP and climbing fast, nor for that matter the EU’s trade surplus with both..), and the corollary complacency that this will last (no mention of the gap in energy intensity between the US, the EU and Japan, for example). There’s the rhetoric of purity as applied to economics. There’s the complacent assurance of permanent strategic primacy, with (of course) no mention of Iraq or Afghanistan. But the really interesting thing is that he sees people like the Vlaams Belang’s representatives on Earth over at Brussels Journal as part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Which should make Barnett far more worth reading than, say, Mark Steyn or any of the European far-right’s growing Washington lobby. His notions about “the Core and the Gap”, the “sysadmin force” specialised in postconflict reconstruction, counterinsurgency and peacekeeping, etc should make him that anyway. In a sense, I see him as a reasonable man struggling to get out of the husk of a hidebound reactionary, rather like his fellow guerrilla warfare theorist John Robb—they both make sense, but find it necessary to convince themselves and their audience that they aren’t perhaps turning – gasp – European by talking nonsense about nonexistent civil wars and cheese-eating surrender monkeys.

It’s tempting to use a Freudian reading.
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afoe 3.0a

Someone once said that there’s nothing really new to the concept of „Web2.0“, that it is really just a marketing ploy designed to actually make those people (in German) get what it’s all about. Someone else said that it all could have been done just as well with a cgi and some Perl back in 1995. And that’s probably true in some sense. But just as my claim to a successful voice over IP telephone call using a 14.4kpbs modem in early 1995, it is also entirely misleading.

If you’ve not been on holiday for the last week, you’ve probably spent as much time on the web as you did in a whole month in 1995 – or more. In 1995, when Sandra Bullock ordered a pizza over the web in „The Net“, I had a good laugh thinking ‚why would anyone ever want to do that?’ Now, while the pizza is probably still best ordered with a traditional phonecall, the web has improved in a lot. Ten years ago, there was still scaffolding everywhere. Now, even if you’re not playing “Second Life“, it has become a not too uncomfortable place to hang out, read, write, watch crazy stuff, or chat with people.

Just as the social invention of the telephone followed its technological invention and, in many ways, surprised those who had to evaluate its potential value before, the web will keep surprising us. And occasionally, we will try to classify phases and identify them with numbers. So websites with increased interactivity and partly user created content – that’s web 2.0.

So what is 2.0 about afoe now?
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Power failure

In more ways than one. On Saturday night, between 2230 and 2300 local time, a huge chunk of the European power grid fell over, affecting supply from northwest Germany, through Holland and Belgium, and mostly in France. Further afield, small areas of Austria and Italy lost power, and the Spain-Morocco interconnection was shut off to prevent the trouble spreading. Fortunately, power was restored speedily.

At the heart of the whole thing, meet the cruise liner Norwegian Pearl. This floating gin palace was recently completed by the Meyer Werft shipyard on the river Ems in northwestern Germany. Now, Meyer’s shipyard is a long way up the river. To get a ship the size of the Pearl out, you have to wait for a spring tide. But there’s a catch – just downstream of the yard, a 400 kilovolt transmission line belonging to the German utility company E.ON crosses the river. And the more water there is in the river, the less clearance there is under the wires. So, on Saturday night, when the weather and the tide were perfect for Captain Thomas Teitge to take the ship down the river, E.ON switched the wires off. And then the troubles began.

Update: She sailed today without further trouble.
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Europe and secularism

Via DJ Nozem I was directed to a very interesting and very important article on Eurozine about European secularism and its role in shaping European identities. The text contains many useful insights and provides a wealth of discussion material. I’ll give one quote for our readers to consider and debate, emphasis mine, but please do and go read everything.

Internal differences notwithstanding, western European societies are deeply secular societies, shaped by the hegemonic knowledge regime of secularism. As liberal democratic societies they tolerate and respect individual religious freedom. But due to the pressure towards the privatization of religion, which among European societies has become a taken-for-granted characteristic of the self-definition of a modern secular society, those societies have a much greater difficulty in recognizing some legitimate role for religion in public life and in the organization and mobilization of collective group identities. Muslim organized collective identities and their public representations become a source of anxiety not only because of their religious otherness as a non-Christian and non-European religion, but more importantly because of their religiousness itself as the other of European secularity. In this context, the temptation to identify Islam and fundamentalism becomes the more pronounced. Islam, by definition, becomes the other of Western secular modernity. Therefore, the problems posed by the incorporation of Muslim immigrants become consciously or unconsciously associated with seemingly related and vexatious issues concerning the role of religion in the public sphere, which European societies assumed they had already solved according to the liberal secular norm of privatization of religion.

The sentence in bold goes to the heart of what I personally feel to be one of the main issues we are dealing with. Sure, Muslim fundamentalists who are ready to throw bombs and cause physical damage are a real threat and get plenty of media attention, deservedly or not. However, I believe the issues are much larger and much more complex. Terrorists, for better or for worse, are still a minority within a minority. There are bigger forces and trends at play here, as Eurozine points out:

The final and more responsible option would be to face the difficult and polemical task of defining through open and public debate the political identity of the new European Union: Who are we? Where do we come from? What constitutes our spiritual and moral heritage and the boundaries of our collective identities? How flexible internally and how open externally should those boundaries be? This would be under any circumstance an enormously complex task that would entail addressing and coming to terms with the many problematic and contradictory aspects of the European heritage in its intra-national, inter-European, and global-colonial dimensions. But such a complex task is made the more difficult by secularist prejudices that preclude not only a critical yet honest and reflexive assessment of the Judeo-Christian heritage, but even any public official reference to such a heritage, on the grounds that any reference to religion could be divisive and counterproductive, or simply violates secular postulates.

Italy 2007 Budget Storm

Italian Finance Minister Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa is going to be a man of his word (and not follow in the path of that other European political leader who was lying about his budget in the morning, in the afternoon, and at night). He assures us of this:

Mr Padoa-Schioppa was adamant any adjustments to the budget, which MPs must approve, would not affect its goal of cutting Italy’s budget deficit to 2.8 per cent.

This is an important re-affirmation, since this time yesterday this little detail wasn’t clear at all, as there was a small matter of 5 billion euro of cuts which were in the budget but which effectively didn’t exist. (All of this is explained in a post on the Italian Economy Watch blog, and the follow up here, as well as by Claus Vistesen on his blog).

As the Economist said:

This is not the sort of thing you expect of a former board member of the European Central Bank. But it shows how far Mr Padoa-Schioppa has had to bend to placate demands by left-wing parties within the government.

The uproar produced within the small business community – who would have seen this mony simply transferred from their coffers to those of the state – has meant that Prodi has now had to publicly vow that the budget will be changed, always of course sticking to the three principles which underlie the budget policy of the current Italian government, namely:

“It’s clear that we will make technical corrections and adjustments, but we absolutely won’t renounce the three objectives of fairness, restoring the health of the public finances and development,”

So, Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, even though this isn’t exactly the sort of thing that you expect from an ex-director of the ECB, we will assume that this time you are serious, and that you will try to comply with the spirit of what your government has agreed with the European Commission, even if, realistically, it may be a very difficult objective to achieve in the global economic environment we may all face in 2007.

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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Why reform has become a dirty word.

This anniversary guest post was written by the indispensable Jérôme Guillet, who normally writes for The European Tribune.

Laurence Parisot, the head of MEDEF, the French business
organisation, recently complained that:

There is one word who meaning for the public has changed in the past 25 years: “reform”. It used to be synonymous with progress, and now it means social regression.

One wonders why. Or not. As I’ve written incessantly over the past year at European Tribune (for instance here), “reform” has come to mean only one thing: less regulation of corporations, lower wages, fewer rights for workers, and weaker unions, i.e. the elimination of anything that can impede corporations’ freedom to make profits in the short term.
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Is Trichet’s Optimism Justified?

Our next anniversary guest post is from the estimable Mark Thoma.

The Fed and the ECB have different economic outlooks for the U.S. and European economies. For instance, the Financial Times reports:

Fed and ECB diverge on economic outlook, by Chris Giles and Ralph Atkins, Financial Times: The Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank painted contrasting pictures of the US and European economies… Together, the statement by Jean-Claude Trichet, ECB president, and the speech by Mr Bernanke indicated that European interest rates were likely to rise while there was no urgency for further US rate rises.
Mr Bernanke gave an optimistic assessment of the US economy’s ability to continue rapid economic growth without triggering further inflationary pressures. … Across the Atlantic, Mr Trichet announced big upward revisions to the ECB’s inflation forecasts … and called for “strong vigilance” to defend price stability – code words used to signal an interest rate increase in early October. … Mr Trichet’s comments followed the unexpected strength of the eurozone recovery in the second quarter, and ECB fears about the impact on inflation
in 2007… Eurozone consumers’ fears about inflation increased in August to the highest level since the introduction of euro notes and coins in 2002…

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