Et in Formentera ego; or, où sont les flaons d’antan?

We’ve just returned from two weeks on Formentera, the smallest and southernmost of the inhabited illes Balears. We try to spend some time on the island at least once every two or three years; for it is an unspoilt place, a place time has left behind, a place untouched by the imperatives of vulgar economics.

No, that’s bollocks, of course. It is no such thing, nor could it be. Continue reading

Futility

The European Commission still can’t tell participation from a horse’s arse. Neither, sadly, can the advocates of closer European integration. At least the ones who the Commission (and all the other institutions) thinks will help them win friends and influence people.

Example the first. Three organisations – the European Movement, plus something called “Notre Europe”, and something else called “Europanova” – are going to hold a gathering in Lille on the 17th of March. Now, the European Movement is familiar enough – rather worthy, painfully Commission-ish. Who the hell are the others? Notre Europe is run – indeed, going by the bylines on its website, is – two superannuated bureaucrats and Jacques Delors. Europanova has the first devilish sign of Euro-dullness on its home page, a reference to “jeunes leaders”.

They turn out to be a French academic who, surprise surprise, works at the European College in Bruges, and a German CSU MEP, a von to boot, who boasts that he invented the concept of “privileged partnership” for Turkey. I wouldn’t boast of that if it were me. It’s run by somebody who headed the European Youth Parliament, and then ran the news magazines Euro92 and A’l Heure de’l Europe.

Look, if anyone’s got a copy of either, I’ll vote for you in the Pyjamas. Can’t say fairer than that. It was 1992 – couldn’t he have been out dancing? The rest of them all seem to work for the Robert Schuman foundation, and one of them for the French national assembly’s European secretariat.

They are a congregation of vapours, but hardly foul or pestilent. Not enough there for that. Honestly, you want to grab them all by the neck and shake them until they do something interesting.
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Bloodthirsty Slavs vs. Racist, Revisionist Italians

Actually, it’s racist, revisionist, and revanchist Italians. But we’ll get to that.

Short version: Italy and Croatia have just had a brief but bitter diplomatic dispute over statements made by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and Croatian President Stipe Mesic. There’s not really a good or bad side here, either; both nations seem to have had a short but violent attack of what my grandmother used to call “the stupids”.

On the plus side, it seems to be over now, and cooler heads have prevailed.

Much more below, if you’re interested.
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Kosovo: Divided We Stand, United We Fall?

This is the title of a post from Seb Bytyci on his South East Europe Online blog. I reproduce the entire post below the fold.

So the UN seems set to adopt a plan which would allow Kosovo to make a giant step on the road to independence. This is hardly surprising, and frankly I see no other realistic way forward. But obviously not everyone is happy. And some of those who seem not to be happy have considerable ability to make mischief, and not the least among these, the Putin regime in Moscow.

Doug Muir and I have been blogging this week about the Serbian elections (here and here) and perhaps the biggest issue which arises from those elections is just which way Kostunica will fall. A lot depends on this decision, and this UN proposal, coming at precisely this time, may well serve to give him a sharp push in the wrong direction. Call it the law of the inopportune moment. Offering a share of power to the Radicals would constitute a major problem for Serbia, and in the medium term for the whole EU. But rising nationalist feelings, especially when they come on the back of desperation, are often hard to contain.

I would say that the biggest strategic danger is that the Serbs allow themselves to become a proxy for the ambitions, and mischief-making abilities, of Russian nationalism in the region.

This week a lot of people are gathered in Davos, and on the agenda somewhere is the topic of demography. Amongst those participating is demographer Nicholas Eberstadt who has repeatedly drawn our attention to the real and present danger constituted by a Russia which, on the back of low birth rates and reduced life expectancy, faces imminent demographic meltdown.

Only this week the Eastern Europe correspondent at The Economist Edward Lucas had this to say (in the Economist latest Europe.View column.

‘Forget, for a moment, the headline stories from central and eastern Europe―the pipeline politics, the corruption scandals, the treasonous tycoons. The big story in the ex-communist world is people. Too few are being born. Too many are dying. And tens of millions have changed country.’

This is the new reality of Eastern Europe, and it is one we would do well not to lose from sight, for if we do we may find ourselves getting bogged down in the detail of things whilst missing the big picture which is unfolding before our very eyes. (Claus Vistesen has an in-depth review of the world bank report to which Edward Lucas refers here).

Seb is reasonably optimistic, and understandably so given all that the Kosovars have gone through, but we should never forget the darker side of things, which lies out there in wait of us, if it can catch us unawares. In the context of what is happening right now in Russia and Serbia I would say that vigilance was the watchword.
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Sometimes the stereotypes are right

It’s usually a charmingly naive belief that wars are the fault of leaders, and if the Ordinary People could choose we’d all live in peace. It doesn’t take long, considering some parts of the blogosphere, your local bar, the historical record and such, to realise this is absurdly simplistic. For one thing, there are always plenty of people who, whether they knew it or not beforehand, burst into a dark bloom of hatred at the hat of a drop. For another thing, the structural forces, the permanently-operating factors in Soviet military jargon, that make leaders do these things would work just as well whoever the individuals are.

Call me a determinist and spank me if you like, but I doubt that’s seriously contestable. But the Arab-Israeli conflict seems to defy this, or at least it has done in the last two years or so. Consider the detailed draft agreement on the Golan Heights, but not just that – the Prisoners’ Document agreed between Hamas and Fatah, Khalid Meshaal’s recent statement that Hamas would accept Israel within the 1967 green line as a “reality”, and more, going back to the ceasefire offer set up by MI6 station chief Alistair Crooke back in 2002, and it’s hard not to conclude that some people aren’t trying.

As Simon Hoggard said about Northern Ireland, they’ll do anything for peace but vote for it. More accurately, they would vote for it if it was on offer – majorities of both parties to the conflict express this view in polls. There are probably lessons to be learned about the long-term management of national interests in a small space from Europe – Gordon Brown’s chief economist and now MP, Ed Balls, has apparently been commissioned to study the economic aspects of the question, and he’d be a fool not to look back at the Monnet/Schuman plans. I doubt he’d like it very much – what did happen to the suggested French-Italian-Spanish initiative after all, then?

In conclusion, though, it’s tempting to think that the continuance of the conflict has a lot to do with hierarchy itself, and the vastly enhanced power and status that war gies leaders. If it wasn’t for the frozen war, Belfast politicians would be of similar status to those of Bradford. No US presidential gladhanding there.

Update: You doubt my method? The Globe and Mail reports that Dick Cheney rejected an offer of Iranian help in Iraq and Lebanon in 2003…oh, and another offer: Jalal Talabani says the Iranians offered him and the US talks “from Afghanistan to Lebanon”..

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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North Sea neuroses

Matthias Matussek, once London correspondent of Der Spiegel and now its culture editor, not to mention brother of top diplomat Thomas Matussek, has a book out. Wir Deutschen: warum die anderen uns gern haben können is meant to be a call for a renewed German patriotism and pride in culture. This would usually suggest a very dull book, but I enjoyed it immensely. Not for the right reasons, though.

Matussek’s approach is idiosyncratic, not that there is anything wrong with that, and the book is really a collection of essays, on topics ranging from Heinrich Heine and Angela Merkel to Britain, Britain, the German economy, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the World Cup, Britain, Danish cartoonists, the East after reunification, and Britain. In fact, an obsession with Britain runs through this book like letters through a stick of rock-hardly a page passes without comparing some German institution, writer, company, statesman or building to one in Britain, and no chapter is complete with a volley of snark directed roughly westward.

Now, it is a truism that Britain and Germany share a mutual obsession. But this would be less interesting if it wasn’t for the sheer wordcount devoted to complaining about the British obsession with Germany. There is a complete chapter on Anglo-German relations, which I looked forward to-the possibilities are immense. Would he dig into the pre-1914 closeness that gave Bradford a Little Germany (and its own Nazi, Ernst-Wilhelm Bohle, born there in 1903 and later Rudolf Hess’s right hand) and Leeds a Dortmund Square, Robert Graves a relative on the Oberste Heeresleitung?

Nah. Instead, most of the chapter is dedicated to the results of a trip to Germany for some schoolteachers his brother’s embassy organised, and a pleasant but uninformative weekend in the country with John Le Carré.
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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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Pride (In the Name of Love)

After my earlier post/can of worms on secularism I have been a bit hesitant to stir up more religious trouble. Until I saw this little beauty:

The Vatican has asked Israel to ban a gay pride parade due to take place tomorrow in Jerusalem. Thousands of gay activists are expected to march in Jerusalem even though violence is expected.

This, in and of itself, is not such a big deal. The Holy See has always claimed that the catholic Church has the right, the duty even, to interfere with other people’s lives. If you have some time, you can go and read the official social doctrine of the Holy See. No, the really interesting part in the article is this:

“The Holy See has reiterated on many occasions that the right to freedom of expression … is subject to just limits, in particular when the exercise of this right would offend the religious sentiments of believers,” the Vatican said.

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