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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And speaking of Eurovision

Just a quick update on Croatia’s EU candidacy.

Eight countries have signed a letter to British PM Tony Blair supporting Croatia’s membership. The letter was presented to Blair — who currently holds the rotating EU Presidency, and will until January 1 — in the recent confence at Newport, in Wales.

The signing countries were Austria, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
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Something Worries Me About Peter Bofinger

Really I realise I have been remiss in another important sense. I have long assumed that in fact the decision to reduce deficits was taken due to the coming fiscal pressure from ageing. This certainly was the background to the discussion. However now I look at the details of the SPG this area is not mentioned (as far as I can see) and the other – the free rider and associated – is the principal consideration.

So those who criticize the bureaucratic and infexible nature of the ECB are in the right to this extent. Of course the underlying demographics *should* be part of the pact, but that is another story.

I find myself in a tricky situation, since I am deeply sceptical that the euro can work, and now after the French vote even more so, but since it has been set in motion, the best thing is obviously to try and make it work (even while doubting). So I am thinking about all this. Obviously I should try and write a longer post making this clearer.

The SGP was adopted at the Amsterdam Council 1997. A history of the implementation of the pact, and a summary of the debate over the new pact can be found here. The Stability and Growth Pact was designed as a framework to prevent inflationary processes at the national level. For this purpose it obliges national governments to follow the simple rule of a balanced budget or a slight surplus.

Now if we go back to the origins of the pact, to the communication of the European Commission on 3 September 2004, you will find the following:

“As regards the debt criterion, the revised Stability and Growth Pact could clarify the basis for assessing the “satisfactory pace” of debt reduction provided for in Article 104(2)(b) of the Treaty. In defining this “satisfactory pace”, account should be taken of the need to bring debt levels back down to prudent levels before demographic ageing has an impact on economic and social developments in Member States. Member States’ initial debt levels and their potential growth levels should also be considered. Annual assessments could be made relative to this reference pace of reduction, taking into account country-specific growth conditions.”

Now curiously I have found nothing in Bofingers argument which seems even to vaguely recognise this background.

A good starting point for this topic would be the conference “Economic and Budgetary Implications of Global Ageing held by the Commission in March 2003.

The European Council in Stockholm of March 2001
agreed that ?the Council should regularly review the
long-term sustainability of public finances, including the
expected strains caused by the demographic changes
ahead. This should be done both under the guidelines
(BEPGs) and in the context of the stability and
convergence programmes.?

This document on the history of EU thinking on ageing and sustainability is incredible.
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The EU and the case for a ‘non’ (Updated)

A couple of weeks ago, Versac from the French blog Publius sent me a bunch of questions concerning my views on the EU and the Constitution. They’re interviewing a number of non-French bloggers in this way. I thought I’d publish my answers here. A sample:

The main negative thing is that it’s giving the EU more power, competences, and I think that’s inappropriate before the democratic deficit is addressed. Also, it may lead to more judicial activism, which is bad.

Voting no is a bit of a gamble, since you can’t be sure it will push the governments in the desired direction, and not for example rule out Turkish membership to get it passed, or end up drafting an even worse constitution. But the happy scenarios seem likelier than the bad ones. We need to bloody the politician’s noses. Above all the present situation is unacceptable, and no real reform seems imminent. We need to seize the rare chance to set the EU on a new course, towards democracy and accountability. By rejecting the constitution, all bets are off.

Full interview under the fold.
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The thing about referendums

I’m quite fond of representative democracy, and don’t think replicating the Swiss or Californian system would be a particularly good idea. I do however think that referendums are an occasionally vital and necessary part of democracy, and to do away with them, like the German constitution does, would be a great mistake.

There are situations where referendums are the only acceptable alternative. As a supporter of representative democracy I disagree with people who say that this or that issue is too important to be dealt with by the normal electoral process. But I do think I think referendums are necessary when an issue is 1) divisive 2) vitally important and 3) the normal partisan system cannot properly deal with, because the fault lines are different. As a corollary, anytime sovereignty is involved, I think an issue has to be pretty minor for you not to hold a referendum.

Most of the referendums on EU memberships are textbook cases of this situation. In the case of Sweden, nearly half of voters opposed Swedish entry and for most of the campaign the no side led. Without a referendum they would have had to vote for the Green or Left parties if they wanted to stop our entry. Both quite radical non-mainstream parties who together held less than 10% of the vote. In some countries all parties were for membership. In these instances I feel not holding a referendum would be undemocratic, and would to some degree disenfranchise (to use an American term) the whole electorate.
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Suspicion and divided loyalties

Perhaps the most damaging effect of 9/11 and all that has followed will be its role in making divided loyalties one of the most dangerous things a person can have. From the beginning, while the ruins of the World Trade Center were still burning, any effort to hold non-trivial positions about terrorism and Islam were attacked. People opposed to the war in Iraq were branded as terrorist supporters, people unimpressed by a programme of reform in the Middle East imposed at the end of a gun were castigated, people who asked questions about whether there was more to things than “they hate us for our freedom” were branded as traitors.

Tariq Ramadan wrote a piece in Wednesday’s New York Times which must be read in this light. The key paragraph – the statement of where he stands – appears at the end:

I believe Western Muslims can make a critical difference in the Muslim majority world. To do this, we must become full, independent Western citizens, working with others to address social, economic and political problems. However, we can succeed only if Westerners do not cast doubt on our loyalty every time we criticize Western governments. Not only do our independent voices enrich Western societies, they are the only way for Western Muslims to be credible in Arab and Islamic countries so that we can help bring about freedom and democracy. That is the message I advocate. I do not understand how it can be judged as a threat to America.

But it is not that hard to see the threat in it. To encourage western Muslims to at once see themselves as having a place in the West and a role in the Islamic world is tantamount to asking them to divide their loyalties. To all too many people right now, divided loyalties are a synonym for treason. The charge of divided loyalties is an old one, and a very damaging one. It was once the most mainstream charge that people made against Jews. To see it revived today – against Muslims in Europe, against Mexicans in the US by the likes of Samuel Huntington, and yes, against Jews in many countries – is very, very troubling.
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I Don’t Understand Modern Conservatism

The recent biography of Mrs Thatcher by John Campbell (in particular volume one, The Grocer’s Daughter) did a good job of setting out just how much Hayek’s writings shaped Thatcher’s political outlook from her student days in Oxford onwards, in particular by paying close attention to her political speeches around 1950, when she was running for Parliament in Deptford, some of the few occasions in her early political career when she was making speeches without being bound by front bench discipline.

That part of the Right of the Conservative Party which is most keen to claim its legitimate political descent from Mrs Thatcher is most adamantly opposed to the European Union in general and British participation in the single European currency in particular.

I sometimes think that this should puzzle us more than it does…
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The headscarf: Radical Islam’s greatest secret weapon

When I first came to Belgium, one of the things that genuinely surprised me is how people seem to think Buffy, the Vampire Slayer is a children’s programme. Admittedly, the title doesn’t exactly say “socially relevant drama”, but I doubt that the show’s success on American TV would have been possible without the age 24-55 market. Eventually, I started asking people what it was about the programme that made them come to that conclusion.

In most cases, people never really got past the name. Fantasy on the continent seems to be a very different animal than in the US. For example, when I suggested that Buffy is no more fantasy than Le Fabuleux destin d’Am?lie Poulain, I was greeted with shock. No, no – I was told – Am?lie is magical. The Paris it is set in – the clean one, without the graffitti and street crime – is fictional, of course, and the plot is certainly not realist, but that doesn’t mean it belongs in the same category as vampires.

In a lot of cases, the real problem was linguistic. Buffy in French sounds very childish, spouting verlan and action movie clichés. The wit and prose skill of the original writers is completely lost, and even if you watch it in English on Flemish TV or the Beeb, I guess non-native speakers just don’t get it.

But I had one answer that surprised me. One person thought it belonged in the same category of American TV as Beverly Hills 90210. Why? Because of the clothes Buffy wears. No school would ever let a girl dress like that to class. I had to explain that in California, Buffy’s clothes aren’t even close to excessive.

The Belgian school system places some demands on students that American schools don’t. Personally, I don’t have a real problem with the imposition of a reasonable dress code in school. It is, if anything, one of life’s most minor injustices. Besides, I remember what it felt like to wear clothes from K-mart at a school where designer jeans were de rigueur.

However, I have some problems with this:

Deux s?nateurs veulent interdire le voile ? l’?cole

BRUXELLES Deux s?nateurs de la majorit?, Anne-Marie Lizin (PS) et Alain Destexhe (MR), ont d?pos? une proposition de r?solution qui invite les autorit?s f?d?rales et f?d?r?es du pays ? adopter des textes l?gislatifs portant sur l’interdiction ? l’?cole, et pour les agents de la fonction publique, de signes manifestant une appartenance religieuse.

Anne-Marie Lizin esp?re que le bureau du S?nat mettra sur pied une commission ad hoc qui pourra se pencher sur cette question d?licate, avec comme fil rouge le texte de la proposition de r?solution.

Pour Alain Destexhe, qui s’appuie sur la position de la Communaut? fran?aise, sur l’avis du Centre pour l’?galit? des chances, sur les diff?rentes d?clarations politiques et sur divers arr?ts, rapports ou recommandations tant belges qu’?trangers, le d?bat est clos, il est temps d’agir. Pour le s?nateur MR, il faut se demander ce qu’implique de vivre ensemble en Belgique au 21?me si?cle.

Il s’agit de d?fendre la libert? de conscience et la compatibilit? des libert?s dans l’espace public, ce qui implique un certain nombre de r?serves au sein de l’administration et ? l’?cole. L’?cole doit ?tre le lieu de l’apprentissage d’une conscience critique et de la promotion de valeurs universelles, ajoute-t-il.

Pour Anne-Marie Lizin, ?le voile, c’est la pression sur l’individu au nom d’une religion ?. La s?natrice de Huy estime qu’il est urgent de l?gif?rer au nom de l’?galit? homme-femme et pour soutenir le combat des femmes musulmanes dans chaque pays o? elles disent ?non? ? l’inf?riorit?.

L’initiative des deux parlementaires se fait en toute autonomie. Tant au PS qu’au MR, on ne se prononce pas pour l’interdiction du port du voile ? l’?cole. Le pr?sident du PS Elio Di Rupo a m?me estim? qu’il n’?tait pas opportun de d?battre de cette question en p?riode pr??lectorale. Mais pour Alain Destexhe, ?ne pas en discuter en p?riode ?lectorale revient justement ? alimenter le poujadisme et le vote d’extr?me droite?.

(Read on for the English translation)
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The Tainted Source

Book Review:
The Tainted Source
by John Laughland

A while back, I discovered that my great-grandfather’s estate in Ukraine, Apanlee, figures in a novel which is something of a favourite among neo-Nazis and Aryan supremacists. This led me to a number of websites that I wouldn’t regularly have frequented, including the Zundelsite and Stormfront’s webpage. There I found something genuinely intriguing: A new historical justification for anti-Semitism. They point to a book written back in the 70’s by Arthur Koestler called The Thirteenth Tribe. Koestler – himself Jewish – makes a case that Eastern European Jews originated in the somewhat mysterious medieval state of Khazar, located in part of what is now Russia. He puts forward evidence that many people in this multi-religious Turkic nation converted to Judaism, and that after the disappearance of the Khazar state these people remained Jewish and formed the core of the Eastern European Jewish population.

It is an interesting idea from a historiographic perspective. Others have taken up Koestler’s case since then. I am not a scholar of Jewish history and I make no claims as to the status or veracity of the Khazar hypothesis. What I found fascinating, in a sick sort of way, was how easily radical anti-Semitic movements in the Anglo-Saxon world manage to incorporate this notion into their worldview. For them, this leads them to the conclusion that the Jews aren’t really Jews, and therefore none of the Biblical status given to Jews applies to them. Modern Jews are, in their minds, merely a Turkic tribe that converted to the false Judaism that killed Jesus, and the real Jews were expelled into Europe by the Romans, becoming the Anglo-Saxon people.

It should go without saying that I find this latter hypothesis to be, to say the least, deeply suspect. In fact, laughable would be a better adjective to describe my opinion of it. I bring this up however, because the kind of thinking that motivates this radical reinterpretation of Jewish and Germanic history also motivates a book I have just read: The Tainted Source. Unfortunately, my finances restrict my ability to purchase books for review, and I have not yet had the gumption to write to publishers to ask for a reviewer’s copy. So, the books on Europe that I read tend to come from the discount rack, where many Euroskeptics seem to end up.

Just as Aryan nationalist justify their anti-Semitism by claiming that Jews aren’t really Jewish because of (in their minds) tainted origins, Laughland’s case against Europe is built atop the idea that Europeanism’s roots are tainted.
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Fiscal Tickery

Thanks David for the link. I haven’t commented on this because like Dutch finance minister Zalm (who I imagine working away weblogging into the early hours under a dim light provided only by his mobile phone) I am tired. I can’t help feeling that everything that needs to be said has already been said, and many times over. Now all we can reasonably do is wait and see the consequences.
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